European allies spurn US effort to protect ships from Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's minister for Europe and foreign affairs, at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 6, 2019.


By NICK WADHAMS | Bloomberg | Published: July 25, 2019

Soaring tensions with Iran following attacks on tankers and drones prompted the Trump administration to call for a coalition of allies to protect ships passing through the Persian Gulf.

This week, U.S. partners including the U.K. and France essentially asked to be counted out.

Rather than signing on to the Trump administration's "Operation Sentinel," those countries want to establish a European maritime security initiative nearly identical to -- but separate from -- the American project. The split reflects just how uneasy key allies have become about the U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign toward Iran.

"The move to establish a European initiative is a clear signal that Europe is bending over backwards to dissociate itself from U.S. policy toward Iran," said Jonathan Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Europe wants some real daylight."

That thinking was echoed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who said Europe wanted to take measures to clear the way for de-escalation of tensions with Iran.

"On the diplomatic front we want to create the conditions for inclusive regional talks on maritime security," Le Drian said. "This is the opposite of the U.S. policy of maximum pressure."

Trump administration officials have privately downplayed the dueling initiatives. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he sees the efforts as "complementary." But there is little question the European move presents new evidence of just how battered the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K., as well as Europe more broadly, has become.

Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran has sparked frantic European efforts to keep that agreement alive. The U.S. continues tightening sanctions designed to choke off Iran's economy in a bid to force it to the negotiating table and agree to what Trump says would be a stronger accord. Many countries see that approach -- not Iranian actions -- as the original source of rising tensions between the Tehran government and the West.

The biggest flashpoint has been over tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, a critical passageway for global oil supplies.

In May and June, a series of attacks on tankers were blamed by the U.S. and some allies on Iran, a charge officials in Tehran denied. In June, Iran shot down an American drone it said was over its territorial waters, prompting Trump to consider military strikes before ultimately backing down.

Then, following the U.K.'s seizure of a tanker carrying Iranian oil near Gibraltar, Iran last week seized the British ship Stena Impero. The U.K. has subsequently threatened "serious consequences" if the ship and its crew are not released.

In response, the U.S. deployed additional forces to the region and announced Operation Sentinel.

A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity when the initiative was announced last month, said the operation isn't military in nature, but aimed at keeping track of Iran by equipping ships with more cameras and other observation equipment. It's focused on observing ships, not escorting them, the person said.

When European leaders announced their own proposal this week, they suggested they were wary of joining an American-led effort that could drag them into conflict, or associate them with a policy they don't support.

Then-U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday that the European maritime initiative was intended to reduce tensions while also sending a strong message to Iran to stop harassing ships in the region. Hunt was replaced on Wednesday by Dominic Raab after Prime Minister Boris Johnson took office.

An administration official, asking not to be identified, said the U.S. would work with its partners and allies to safeguard freedom of navigation. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, speaking on Fox News before the announcement, made clear the U.S. wanted European nations to play a larger role protecting vessels.

"The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships," he said.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic say there will almost certainly be information sharing and other coordination and that the two initiatives could be merged. Yet for some European politicians, the irony of the split is too much to ignore. The U.K., where Johnson has vowed to press ahead with a split from the European Union, is so circumspect about American policy toward Iran that it would rather partner with other European nations than the Trump administration.

"Apparently a government that is attempting to exit the European Union is not willing to undertake military action with the U.S. but actually with the European Union, because they're more comfortable with it," German lawmaker Rolf Muetzenich said Wednesday.

Analysts argue that the separate efforts will only fuel confusion in an already volatile region even if the two maritime efforts eventually become one. They say it reflects a fear --- which the U.S. denies -- that the Trump administration is prepared to further escalate tensions with Iran.

"U.S. allies are increasingly concerned about participating in joint operations under American command," said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. "If American allies lose faith that the U.S. is committed to peaceful resolution of the Iran issue, they won't want to get caught up in an operation with an objective they don't support."

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Bloomberg's Gregory Viscusi, Patrick Donahue and Travis Tritten (Bloomberg Government) contributed.

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