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Pompeo seeks support from allies to monitor Persian Gulf region amid tensions with Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by King Salman in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Monday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by King Salman in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Monday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images)
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday began recruiting allies to help outfit tankers and other ships in the Persian Gulf region with cameras that can monitor and corroborate threats from Iran.

A new program, called Sentinel, is being developed as a response to the dueling accounts that have arisen since Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week. Iran said the unmanned aircraft was in Iranian airspace; the United States said it was in international airspace. Both countries provided coordinates to make their case and accused the other of lying.

Under the Sentinel program, ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz would be provided cameras and other monitoring devices. Some also would be escorted by other ships, both military and commercial.

“This is having eyes on,” said a senior State Department official, briefing reporters flying with Pompeo after his meetings in Saudi Arabia with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“So it’s not about shooting at people,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “It’s about shooting pictures of Iranians. It’s about proactive deterrents because Iranians just want to go out and do what they want to do and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t do it.’ We know what they’ve done.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the first two stops on Pompeo’s week-long trip to the Middle East and Asia. The Saudis are the first to sign on to the plan, and the United States intends to seek material and financial contributions from other allies in coming weeks.

Though the United States would lead the coalition, it is not clear whether it would provide escort ships, or how many.

President Trump weighed in on Twitter, lamenting that the United States was “protecting the shipping lanes” in the strait “for other countries . . . for zero compensation.”

Later in the day, Pompeo met with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s armed forces, and appealed for military help with maritime security.

“We’ll need you all to participate, your military folks,” Pompeo was heard telling him. “The president is keen on sharing that the United States doesn’t bear the cost of this,” he added, noting that the UAE, Saudi Arabia and “another 20 countries” would “need to help advance” the exercise.

Immediate crisis with Iran abates, but potential for conflict persists

The coalition envisioned by the State Department and Pentagon, which are developing Sentinel together, is made up of “all sorts of nations that want to preserve the freedom of navigation in what is the world’s most important shipping way,” the State Department official said.

Military officials said the Sentinel program was in the early planning stage. One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a program that has not been finalized, said that as envisioned now it would request foreign nations, particularly Asian or gulf countries, to provide financial assistance or ships to help monitor and protect maritime commerce in the Middle East. Countries that buy and sell oil in the region would be asked in certain cases to escort ships, place ships at fixed positions in the region or provide maritime patrol aircraft.

According to a State Department account of Pompeo’s talks in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, the secretary talked with the Saudi king and the crown prince about the need for maritime security to ensure free navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. They also discussed ways to counter Iran’s influence in the region and hold it accountable.

Pompeo was accompanied by several aides when he met with the king. But Pompeo and the prince had lunch together at a Jiddah restaurant with no aides joining them, so it was not immediately clear whether they discussed other issues.

Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia came one day after Houthi rebels allied with Iran fired a drone attack from Yemen on the Saudi airport in Abha. One person was reported killed, and 22 were wounded.

Pompeo cited the attack as a prime example of Iran’s malign influence in the region.

“With every attack conducted by an Iranian proxy, the regime tacks another day onto its 40-year track record of spreading death and chaos in the region, and beyond,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.