Operation Sentinel, a US plan to patrol the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Oman against a purported Iranian threat will soon gain the commitment of several allies and partners, Defence Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Saturday.
According to the Pentagon chief, representatives of over 30 countries attended a conference earlier this weeek at US Central Command headquarters in Florida to discuss the international maritime force that would allegedly secure navigation routes in the region in the wake of oil tanker "sabotage attacks" there.
"We had various degrees of commitment, so I think we’ll have some announcements coming out soon in the coming days where you’ll see countries begin to sign up", Esper elaborated.
Asked if Asian countries would join the coalition, the minister simply replied, "Time will tell".
"I think we all recognise Iranian bad behaviour in the Gulf is continuing. Ideally we all work together. If we all work side by side, that's good too. What we want to do is stay on the diplomatic path, and we want to grow a coalition that will help us do that", he continued.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously revealed that he had asked France, Germany, the UK, Australia, Japan, and South Korea to join its mission.
Washington's European allies have, however, been reluctant to partake in the coalition over concerns they might be dragged into a potential war with Iran. While Berlin refused to sign up for a US-led plan, London chose to boost its own assets in the Gulf following the Iranian seizure of a UK-flagged oil tanker last month.
Japan won't join the US mission either, according to Mainichi Shimbun, a local media outlet, which added that Tokyo, however, might send warships independently in order to protect its vessels in the region.
Esper said that the current US administration's goal with the proposed naval mission "has always been to internationalise it" but regardless of nations' commitments, Washington would continue to provide both air and Navy-based surveillance in the turbulent region.
"Nobody wants to be drawn into conflict with Iran. That's why we first proposed the idea of a coalition of like-minded allies and partners. I think the key is that there is a unity of effort, a shared commitment, if you will, to preserving freedom of navigation in the straits, in the Gulf and deterring provocative behaviour that could lead to a miscalculation that can escalate into a conflict. We want to avoid that", Esper concluded.
Operation Sentinel was proposed after several incidents involving oil tankers in the region: in May, four vessels - two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati - were allegedly "sabotaged" near the UAE port of Fujairah; a month later, two oil tankers - Japanese and Norwegian - were targeted in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz. Both episodes were immediately blamed on Tehran, which, in turn, vehemently denied its involvement and urged Washington and its regional allies to stop "warmongering" and "false flag ops".
In July, Iran detained a UK-flagged tanker over alleged violations of maritime laws, claiming the vessel had ignored warnings, turned off its positioning device and collided with and Iranian fishing boat. The seizure came just a few weeks after the UK detained an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar, asserting it was transferring crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, which Tehran denied.