Russia, China urge restraint – Saudis call to secure waterways – New US defense secretary named

WASHINGTON: China and Russia warned yesterday about escalating Middle East tensions after Washington said it would deploy 1,000 more troops to the region and renewed accusations that Iran was behind a tanker attack. The US moves came as Iran set a 10-day countdown for world powers to fulfill their commitments under a nuclear deal abandoned by Washington, saying it would otherwise surpass the uranium stockpile limit mandated by the accord.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have escalated ever since the US quit the deal, with Washington bolstering its military presence in the region and blacklisting Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. On Monday, Washington further upped the ante. “I have authorized approximately 1,000 additional troops for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East,” acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan said in a statement. “The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region,” Shanahan said.

A handout photo made available by the US Department of Defense on Monday shows an Iranian patrol boat armed with a Russian-made ZU-23-2, a twin-barreled anti-aircraft cannon, after reportedly removing an “unexploded limpet mine” from one of two tankers in the Gulf. – AFP

Late yesterday, Trump said Shanahan has withdrawn from consideration to head the US military. Shanahan “has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family,” Trump tweeted after Shanahan faced questions over his past personal life and an allegation of domestic violence. Trump said the secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, will be named as the new acting defense secretary. Esper had been considered a leading contender for the job if Shanahan was ultimately not confirmed.

The United States has blamed Iran for last week’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a charge Tehran denies as “baseless”. The Pentagon released new images on Monday that it said showed Iran was behind the attack on one of the ships. The US argument centers on an unexploded limpet mine on the Kokuka Courageous tanker ship that it says was removed by Iranians on a patrol boat. “Iran is responsible for the attack based on video evidence and the resources and proficiency needed to quickly remove the unexploded limpet mine,” the Pentagon said in a statement accompanying the imagery.

The US released a grainy black and white video last week it said showed the Iranians removing the mine, but has not provided an explanation for why they allegedly did so while the US military was in the area. The images released Monday show the site where the unexploded mine was allegedly attached, the Iranians on a patrol boat who are said to have removed it, and damage from another device that did explode.

Saudi Arabia’s cabinet urged world powers yesterday for firm measures to secure shipping lanes across the region, state media reported. The cabinet called for “decisive action to ensure the safety of navigation in the waterways of the region… in the face of threats to energy markets and the dangers to the global economy,” the official Saudi Press Agency said.

In an interview with Time magazine, Trump, striking a different tone from some Republican lawmakers who have urged a military approach to Iran, said last week’s tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman had had only a “very minor” impact so far. Asked if he would consider military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, Trump said: “I would certainly go over nuclear weapons, and I would keep the other a question mark.”

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged all sides “to show restraint”. “We would prefer not to see any steps that could introduce additional tensions in the already unstable region,” he told journalists. And China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned all sides “not to take any actions to provoke the escalation of tension in the region, and not to open a Pandora’s box”. He urged Washington to “change its practice of extreme pressure” but also called on Tehran not to abandon the nuclear agreement “so easily.”

Iran’s atomic energy organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said Monday that the country would soon pass the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the nuclear deal. “The countdown to pass the 300 kilograms reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days’ time… we will pass this limit,” Kamalvandi said. The move “will be reversed once other parties live up to their commitments,” he added. US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus responded that the world “should not yield to nuclear extortion.”

President Hassan Rouhani announced on May 8 that Iran would stop observing restrictions on its stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water agreed under the deal, in retaliation for the unilateral US withdrawal. He said the ultimatum was intended to “save the (deal), not destroy it.” Yesterday, he reiterated in a speech that Tehran was committed to the nuclear deal and said there was “no one in the world that does not praise Iran”. “Iran has been loyal to its signature, Iran has been loyal to international agreements,” he added.

Tehran has warned it will further scaling down nuclear commitments by July 8 unless remaining partners to the deal – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – help it circumvent US sanctions and sell its oil. European leaders have urged Iran to stick to the deal, with French President Emmanuel Macron urging it “to behave in a way that is patient and responsible”. Under the agreement, Iran pledged to reduce its nuclear capacities for several years and allow international inspectors inside the country to monitor its activities in return for relief from international sanctions.

The deal set a limit on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges, and restricted its right to enrich uranium to no higher than 3.67 percent, well below weapons-grade levels of around 90 percent. It also called on Iran to export enriched uranium and heavy water to ensure the country’s reserves would stay within the production ceiling set by the agreement, yet recent US restrictions have made such exports virtually impossible. Uranium enriched to much higher levels than Iran’s current stocks can be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, while heavy water is a source of plutonium, which can be used as an alternative way to produce a warhead. – Agencies