Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper takes the reins at the Pentagon this week in a particularly strained moment between Iran and the United States, days after the former exacerbated the uncertainty in the region by seizing a British-flagged oil tanker traveling through the Strait of Hormuz.
Within a week of his confirmation, Esper will travel to the headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East, to discuss how the United States will protect its own commercial vessels traveling through the strait. CENTCOM has already announced a “multinational effort” to “enable nations to provide escort to their flagged vessels while taking advantage of the cooperation of participating nations for coordination and enhanced maritime domain awareness and surveillance”—but questions have lingered over the specifics of that effort.
“I use ‘escort’ broadly,” Esper told reporters on his first full day in the Pentagon. “In some cases that might be strictly an overhead capability. It may mean there is a U.S. naval warship within proximity. I don’t necessarily mean every U.S.-flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it.”
The Iranian incident has also exposed the delicate condition of U.S.-UK relations, another minefield that Esper will have to navigate. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said Monday that the U.K. will take steps to bolster maritime security in the Persian Gulf, but that those efforts will be “European-led” and “will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran.”
Esper on Wednesday said that the U.S. and European efforts will be “complementary” and insisted that the two allies are on the same page. “I think it’s all helpful,” he said. “It’s all sending the same messages we’re trying to send [to Iran]: that is, freedom of navigation and no provocative acts in the strait.”
Tensions with Iran have been on the rise since May, when the Trump administration began warning of what it described as an aggressive campaign by Iran designed to get the United States to back off its “maximum pressure” strategy. Trump in 2018 withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal—which traded sanctions relief for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program—arguing that it was too narrow in scope and allowed Iran to get away with too much other bad behavior.
The U.K. has publicly backed Washington’s assessment of an elevated threat posed by Iran, but it did not support President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement and it has throughout the spring called for de-escalating tensions with Tehran. Hunt said Monday that the U.K. remains committed to the accord.
None of the crew captured in the Friday seizure are British citizens, British officials have said. A Liberian-flagged tanker was also seized.
Critics say that the Trump administration has caused the current security crisis by backing Iran into a corner, first by withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and then by imposing an escalating ladder of punishing sanctions. The administration broadly contends that its “maximum pressure” campaign is working, by denying Iranian leaders the revenue needed to build out their weapons programs and fund proxy groups and — maybe, eventually — forcing then to the negotiating table.
Esper said the Pentagon wants to defuse the situation. He called the Friday seizure of the British ship a “tit for tat” in retaliation for the July 4 British seizure of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar, which U.K. officials said was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
“The point of Operational Sentinel was to deescalate by deterring an escalation—an unnecessary provocation that leads us into an unnecessarily conflict,” Esper said. “This is what you have seen evolve in many ways between the U.K. and Iran. It’s becoming a tit-for-tat and we want to avoid those situations.”
But, he said, “to the degree that circumstances warrant, that we think a U.S. ship might be under some type of threat—of being stopped or being seized—then we would want to make sure we have the capacity to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Last month, President Trump ordered and then canceled airstrikes in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone that Iran said was flying in its airspace. (The United States says that the drone was flying over international waters.) On Thursday, U.S. Marines destroyed a drone that the White House said was Iranian and which Pentagon officials said was closing in on an amphibious assault ship operating in the region. Tehran denies that it lost a drone.
There are signs that both Iran and the United States are looking for an off-ramp to defuse the crisis. Esper reiterated on Wednesday that the Trump administration is willing to open negotiations for a new deal without preconditions, and on Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister offered a modest deal as a way out of the crisis.
But it will fall to Esper to manage the U.S. military response should the situation spiral out of control, as analysts have warned could happen if the administration doesn’t find a way to lower the temperature.
In this, the new defense secretary has some powerful allies: He is a West Point classmate of both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seen as one of the key architects of the maximum pressure strategy; and of David Urban, a key Trump campaign official and friend of the president.
Esper pledged Wednesday to keep politics out of the Pentagon, using “my personal example…and the messages that we’ll continue to send our commanders and folks here in the building.
“It’s something you always have to stay on top of.”