(CNSNews.com) – Britain’s Royal Navy will work alongside the U.S. Navy to provide security for commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, but other major European allies remain leery of joining an initiative they worry could be viewed as part of a U.S. campaign of pressure on the Iranian regime.
Germany and France have both indicated they will not take part in a U.S.-led mission in the Persian Gulf.
“If Germany were to participate in a U.S.-led mission, and things should escalate, there would be a great danger of being sucked into a military mission,” Peter Beyer, the German government official responsible for trans-Atlantic relations, told a Bavarian newspaper, the Passauer Neue Presse, on Monday.
Beyer acknowledged that Germany has security interests and responsibilities in the Gulf – where German-flagged ships are among those using the crucial waterway for the world’s energy supplies – but said it should rather be part of an E.U. mission.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also made clear Monday that Germany would not join the U.S.-U.K. initiative, even as he conceded that convincing the E.U. of the need for a European observation mission in the Gulf would “take some time.”
Earlier, Maas had said that Germany was “in close agreement with our French partners” in the decision.
“We think the strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ is wrong,” he said. “We do not want a military escalation. We will continue to work with diplomacy.”
Maas’ French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told French lawmakers late last month that an envisaged European mission would be “the opposite of the American initiative.”
“For us, this initiative is aimed at defusing tensions and facilitating de-escalation,” Le Drian’s spokeswoman said the same day. “It differs from the American approach of maximum pressure.”
Germany, Britain and France, the E.U.’s three biggest economies, are all parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal struck with Iran during the Obama administration.
The E.U. trio is opposed to President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and his campaign of “maximum pressure” designed to prod the regime in Tehran to change its behavior.
But Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to exit the E.U. within months. Even as it maintains its declared support for the JCPOA, London is signaling it won’t wait for Paris and Berlin to respond to the tensions in the Gulf.
Britain first called for a “European-led maritime protection mission” after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on July 19 seized a British tanker in the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, but response from its E.U. partners has been slow.
So on Monday, Johnson’s government announced that the Royal Navy will join the U.S. Navy in an “international” mission aimed at assuring “the security of merchant vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.”
Britain has offered to lead one of the mission’s maritime task groups, and the government said in a statement that both it and the U.S. are “committed to working with allies and partners to encourage others to join and broaden the response to this truly international problem.”
Britain already has two warships, the HMS Duncan and HMS Montrose, accompanying British-flagged ships in the Gulf.
The U.S. Navy’s Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group is underway in the Gulf of Oman, the body of water to the south-east of the Strait of Hormuz, and the USS Boxer amphibious ready group is further north in the Persian Gulf. The Boxer was the ship responsible for shooting down an IRGC drone on July 19, in response to what Trump described as a threat to “the safety of the ship and the ship’s crew.”
The British tanker, Stena Impero, remains in Iranian hands, and at the weekend the IRGC announced it has seized another “foreign” tanker – believed to be Iraqi – which it claimed was smuggling fuel in the Persian Gulf.
‘Lots of conversations taking place’
During a weekend visit to Australia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper both spoke about the effort to build a coalition to secure Gulf shipping.
Esper said 30-plus countries attended a “sourcing conference” hosted by U.S. Central Command last week and offered “various degrees of commitment.”
Pompeo responded to a question about countries’ apparent reluctance to join by advising a reporter not to “believe everything that’s reported in the press.”
“There’s lots of conversations taking place amongst all of the countries. As with Australia, they are all taking this request seriously,” he said. “They understand that they have goods that flow through this region that are important to their own economies.”
In a Sky News interview on Monday, Pompeo alluded to the significant interests which South Korea and Japan in particular have in securing seaborne energy supplies.
He said the aim was both to deter Iranian provocations and to “protect the Australian economy and the Japanese economy and the South Korean economy, who each depend on goods being able to flow through that strait.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Monday the U.S. was responsible for tensions in the Gulf
“Every time the U.S. had come to the Persian Gulf, it brought nothing but violence and war,” he told a press conference.
Iran continues to demand that the British territory of Gibraltar release an Iranian supertanker, Grace I, detained last month on suspicion of carrying crude oil to Syria in violation of E.U. sanctions against the Assad regime.
Zarif reiterated that Iran views the British “piracy” as part of U.S.-instigated “economic terrorism.” He repeated Iran’s earlier denial that the tanker had been heading for Syria – but did not say where it was supposedly going.
Zarif also denied that the IRGC seized the British tanker in retaliation for the detention of the Grace I, even though the IRGC earlier threatened to do just that.