Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday said that he will travel to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida next week to discuss details of a plan to monitor hostile Iranian activity in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
Esper, who was confirmed and sworn in as defense secretary on Tuesday, said that he and Centcom leaders will discuss the U.S.-proposed Operation Sentinel – an effort that would allow the U.S. military to escort American vessels traveling in the region if requested.
“We will escort our ships to the degree the threat requires it,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon.
He later added that “escort doesn’t mean [Navy warships] are following right behind. But as long as you are in the area and can react quick enough to deter a provocation, that’s the key.” Tensions between the United States and Iran nearly boiled over in recent months following multiple conflicts in the region.
Iran last month shot down a U.S. surveillance drone that it claimed was flying over Iranian airspace — a move that nearly prompted a retaliatory strike — and the Trump administration, in turn, last week said that it shot down an Iranian drone that was within 1,000 yards of a Navy vessel. Iran has denied one of its drones was destroyed.
In addition, Iran forces on Friday seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting the United Kingdom to announce on Monday that it will increase its military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Esper said Wednesday that any European deployments would be “complementary” to the U.S. operation, with the coordinated goal of deterring provocative actions from Iran.
“I think it’s all helpful,” he said. “It’s all sending the same messages we’re trying to send – that is, freedom of navigation and no provocative acts in the strait.”
Then-British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday, however, that his country “will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.”
Hunt on Wednesday rejected a job on the Cabinet of new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said later Wednesday that he hopes the British will aid in ship safety in the Gulf as “a coordinated international approach to guarantee free shipping in international waters is a good thing.”
“Obviously there have been differences between U.S. and Europe on whether to continue in the [Iran Nuclear Deal]. I don’t think there are any differences between us and Europe . . . on Iran’s activity in the Persian Gulf interfering with shipping of oil,” Thornberry told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“I hope and trust the new prime minister as of an hour or two ago will take that attitude,” he added. Johnson officially took office on Wednesday.