By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is not aiming to set up a military coalition against Iran with its new security initiative in the Gulf, but simply “shining a flashlight” in the region to deter attacks on commercial ships, a top Pentagon official told Reuters.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, who briefed NATO allies this week on the U.S. proposal, said it was less operational and more geared towards increasing surveillance capabilities.
“This is not a coalition against Iran … If you were militarily confronting Iran, this is not the construct that you would use,” said Wheelbarger, one of the most senior policy officials at the Pentagon.
“The goal is to increase maritime domain awareness and surveillance capabilities in the region to dissuade malign action,” she said, offering the most detailed assessment to date of the progress of the plans and discussions with allies.
“Just shining a flashlight on something – that’s all we’re asking people to do, quite frankly.”
Washington first proposed some sort of multinational effort open to all allies and partners to bolster maritime security in the Gulf in June after accusing Iran of attacking oil tankers around the Strait of Hormuz, a critical maritime chokepoint between the Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
Tehran denies the charges.
The proposal was met with concern in some European capitals, already at odds with Washington over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Some critics worry the move would ramp up military tensions instead of discouraging attacks.
Iran came close to conflict with the United States last month after the Islamic Republic’s unprecedented shoot-down of a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile nearly triggered retaliatory strikes by Trump.
Wheelbarger stressed that the new initiative was “not about military confrontation,” however.
Under a plan detailed on July 9, the United States would provide coordinating ships and lead surveillance efforts while participants in the coalition patrolled nearby waters and escorted commercial vessels with their nation’s flags.
“We have several countries that are interested and are looking at their naval capacities to see how they sequence and perform that duty,” Wheelbarger said, without naming them.
The United States would not escort other countries’ ships, she said, and it would be up to participating nations to decide whether an escort was required. The United States is not asking countries to provide escorts, she said.
“We want to provide a framework of information sharing, so that if countries want to escort their vessels, we can help them do it,” she said.
Asked about what kinds of contributions she expected from allies, Wheelbarger suggested that small, quick ships would be helpful.
“There is a lot of benefit to countries who want to contribute their lower capability patrol vessels or corvette-type ships … They’re just fast and mobile and agile and can get around that little territory,” she said.
Iran has long threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes, if it cannot export its oil. The Trump administration is trying to block Iran’s exports as a way to pressure it to renegotiate the nuclear deal.
The Pentagon said earlier this month that the initiative would also extend to the Bab al-Mandab, another strategic waterway off Yemen.
Wheelbarger made clear that such a complex multinational effort would take time to organise.
“This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a case of having a conversation with your allies on Tuesday and having commitments on Wednesday,” she said. “Some of it is a matter of time of how long it takes to transit vessels. Some of it is (that) every country has a different process.”
She declined to speculate on timing, and when asked whether it could take months, said: “Could be.”
She called her conversations with NATO ambassadors in Brussels on Tuesday “very productive.”
“I went in very prepared for a very sceptical and aggressive audience. And that’s really not what we experienced,” she said.
U.S. officials will speak to the Washington diplomatic corps about the initiative on Friday, the State Department said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)