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Fearing Iranian attacks, Trump is rallying allies to escort ships in Strait of Hormuz

A picture obtained by AFP from Iranian News Agency ISNA on June 13, 2019, reportedly shows fire and smoke billowing from Norwegian owned Front Altair tanker said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. (ISNA/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The Trump administration is advancing a plan to escort or accompany ships through the Strait of Hormuz with international assistance, fearing an increase in attacks on oil tankers by Iranian forces.

White House and Defense Department officials told McClatchy this week that President Donald Trump wants a “coalition” convoy that will secure maritime transit through the vital strait, where a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes each day, after six tankers were attacked in May and June.

“The president is really pushing this to get it going — it’s either looking for a coalition to contribute physically or monetarily,” one White House official said. “The bottom line is America is the No. 1 producer of oil, and we want to defend global commons and commercial oil going through the Gulf, but we don’t necessarily need it. So the president is pushing hard and I think we’re making progress.”

At the Group of 20 summit last week in Japan, and at a peace conference in Bahrain, White House and State Department officials pressed allied leaders to commit to participate in the convoy operation. International support for a convoy would complicate potential Iranian efforts to harass U.S. ships and track with the president’s emphasis on burden-sharing, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the plan.

Trump had been frustrated with foreign leaders who had not joined the United States in assigning blame to Iran for the recent tanker attacks — in particular, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in Iran when two Japanese tankers were struck on June 13. That led Trump to lash out on Twitter, two administration officials said.

“Why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey,” Trump wrote, specifically naming China and Japan. “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

Trump has told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lead the way on the initiative and is pressing him to recruit countries to demonstrably contribute to the coalition effort, the officials confirmed.

The administration is pursuing the convoy plan amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington in the strait and the wider region. Iran shot down a U.S. drone last month, exceeded limits on its stockpiling of nuclear material set by a nuclear deal with world powers, and may increase its enrichment of uranium to higher grades on Monday in response to the Trump administration’s crushing sanctions policy.

U.S. warships, including destroyers and cruisers, transit the strait regularly. But they have not escorted vessels since 1987, when the largest U.S. convoy of ships since World War II was sent to the Gulf to protect Kuwaiti-flagged vessels in what is known as the “Tanker War.”

“Iran has been engaging in these attacks that affect many countries around the world. This is not limited to the United States, Saudi and the U.A.E. I think what is required is an international response,” Brian Hook, the administration’s special envoy on Iran, had said ahead of the G-20, noting that Trump planned to focus on the issue at the summit in Japan.

A defense official confirmed that there are discussions underway for the U.S. Navy to potentially escort vessels through the strait. But the official cautioned that there has been no change in status, and no imminent action was expected, because the United States would still need a number of allies in the region to support the proposal.

Approximately 30 international tankers transit the strait on a daily basis, the defense official said.

“Maritime security means escorting ships,” a second White House official said. “It means protecting commercial shipping against Iran’s swarm boats.”

A U.K. official acknowledged the discussions and told McClatchy that London is “working closely with our partners to restore maritime security in the Gulf,” while a French official said that Paris is “putting all our efforts on de-escalation in the region.”

“It is essential that trade is able to safely pass through international waters in this region, including the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways through which a large proportion of global energy transits,” the U.K. official said.

“We have long been concerned by Iran’s destabilizing regional activity and it is vital that Iran now take steps to de-escalate the situation.”

But the United States is still considering other options, the defense official said. Escorting not only requires sailing in close proximity to commercial vessels, but also committing to the protection of those vessels as they transit — increasing the chances of confrontation.

The United States could instead consider simply accompanying vessels, which would mean its ships would act as a deterrent and move through the strait at the same time without committing to defend the vessels in case of an incursion.


(Tara Copp contributed to this report.)


© 2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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