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The U.S. is seeking support from its allies to create a naval coalition in the Middle East, adding to concerns that the increased military presence in the Gulf combined with growing tensions on both sides could accidentally kickstart a military conflict between Washington and Tehran.
The U.S. says its goal is to protect oil tankers as they pass through strategically important shipping lanes in waters around Iran and Yemen. The Pentagon believes the coalition is necessary after a series of attacks on oil tankers in recent months — attacks Washington has blamed on Tehran. Iran denies the claims and says it is willing to respond with missiles if the U.S. “makes a mistake” by attacking an Iranian target.
The plan will see each member of the coalition provide security to ships carrying their country’s flags by escorting them with military vessels, while the U.S. will provide “command and control” capabilities, gathering intelligence from a number of different sources and sharing it with the other members of the coalition.
“We are engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab,” Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Fort Myer in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.
Dunford added that the U.S. would ascertain over the “next couple of weeks” which nations have the political will to support the Pentagon plan.
“Escorting in the normal course of events would be done by countries who have the same flag, so a ship that is flagged from a particular country would be escorted by that country,” Joint Chiefs chairman Dunford said.“What the United States is uniquely capable of providing is some of the command and control, some of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
READ: Trump and Iran are playing the world's scariest game of chicken
The Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab are essential strategic marine locations that provide access to the Gulf and the Red Sea.
In April, Iran once again threatened to close off the Straits of Hormuz, through which almost one-fifth of the world’s oil passes, if crippling U.S. sanctions mean it can no longer export oil.
Dunford said the Pentagon’s plan was only finalized in recent days but it was sparked by attacks on oil tankers in the region in May and June. Those attacks were followed by the shooting down of a U.S. military spy drone in June, in response to which President Trump ordered an airstrike against Iranian targets. He called it off at the last minute.
It emerged Wednesday that in early June, Iran had hoped to defuse growing tensions when it released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with U.S. permanent residency who had been in jail for four years.
Iranian officials hoped the move would cool tensions and open the door for negotiations, according to sources speaking to Reuters. Either the U.S. missed the signal or chose to ignore it, but since Zakka’s release on June 11 pressure has escalated as a result of attacks on the tankers and drone..
Fears of an all-out military conflict have been growing in the region, with Iran stoking tensions by repeatedly exceeding limits imposed on its nuclear program under the 2015 accord signed with world powers.
The U.S. has significantly increased its military presence in the region in recent months. As a result, the possibility of accidentally kickstarting a military conflict has grown and on Tuesday Iran made clear that any escalation of military action by the U.S. in the region would be met with a strong response.
“American bases are within the range of our missiles," Hossein Nejat a commander in Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), told Tasnim news agency. “Our missiles will destroy their aircraft carriers if they make a mistake. Americans are very well aware of the consequences of a military confrontation with Iran.”
Washington continues to say it is not interested in entering a military conflict with Iran, but experts have warned for months that incidents like the shooting down of a military drone could see an all-out conflict begin by accident.
“The danger is that one of these incidents might spiral out of control, leading to a full confrontation,” Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank in London, told VICE News. “But I think both sides are careful in choosing their targets, and choosing their methods and choosing their words.”
Cover: An oil tanker is on fire in the sea of Oman, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked on Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the U.S. Navy rushed to assist amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. (AP Photo/ISNA)