Trump accuses Iran of secret enrichment, says sanctions to be cranked up ‘substantially’

WASHINGTON: The United States hopes to enlist allies over the next two weeks or so in a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, where Washington blames Iran and Iran-aligned fighters for attacks, the top US general said on Tuesday. Under the plan, which has only been finalized in recent days, the United States would provide command ships and lead surveillance efforts for the military coalition. Allies would patrol waters near those US command ships and escort commercial vessels with their nation’s flags.


Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulated those details to reporters following meetings on Tuesday about it with acting US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We’re 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 the Bab Al-Mandab,” Dunford said. “And so I think probably over the next couple of weeks we’ll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we’ll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that’ll support that.”


Pompeo said last month that he hopes more than 20 countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, would work together on building maritime security. “We’ll need you all to participate, your military folks,” Pompeo said. “The president is keen on sharing that the United States doesn’t bear the cost of this.”

This handout picture released by the US Navy on June 25, 2019 shows a visit, board, search and seizure team from the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul pulling alongside a Bahraini dhow during routine maritime security operations in the Gulf waters. – AFP


Iran has long threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes, if it was unable to export its oil, something US President Donald Trump’s administration has sought as a way to pressure Tehran to renegotiate a deal on its nuclear program. But the US proposal for an international coalition to safeguard shipping in the Strait, at the mouth of the Gulf, has been gaining momentum since attacks in May and June against oil tankers in Gulf waters. Last month, Iran shot down a US drone near the Strait, prompting President Donald Trump to order retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off.


Although US officials had publicly discussed plans to safeguard the Strait, Dunford’s disclosure that the coalition would also seek to bolster security in the Bab Al-Mandab off Yemen appeared to be a new element. The United States, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have long fretted over attacks by Iran-aligned Houthi fighters in the narrow Bab Al-Mandab waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.


Nearly 4 million barrels of oil are shipped daily through the Bab Al-Mandab to Europe, the United states and Asia plus commercial goods. Dunford said the United States would provide “command and control” ships but said the goal would be for other countries to provide vessels to patrol waters between those command ships. The third part of the mission would involve coalition members escorting their countries’ commercial vessels. “The expectation is that the actual patrolling and escorts would be done by others,” he said.


Dunford said the size of the campaign could be adjusted based on the number of countries that commit to it. “This will be scalable, right? So with a small number of contributors, we can have a small mission. And we’ll expand that as the number of nations that are willing to participate identify themselves,” he said.


Meanwhile, Trump warned yesterday that sanctions against Iran would soon be “increased substantially” after Tehran said it had exceeded a limit on enriched uranium reserves under a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington. “Iran has long been secretly ‘enriching,’ in total violation of the terrible 150 Billion Dollar deal made by John Kerry and the Obama Administration,” Trump said on Twitter. “Remember, that deal was to expire in a short number of years. Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!”


Former secretary of state Kerry spearheaded the diplomacy that led to the 2015 accord between Iran and world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal promised sanctions relief, economic benefits and an end to international isolation in return for stringent curbs on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. But Tehran says it has lost patience with perceived inaction by European countries more than a year after Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement, reimposing stinging sanctions.


Tehran announced on Monday it had surpassed 4.5 percent uranium enrichment – above the 3.67 percent limit under the accord – though still far below the 90 percent necessary for military purposes. President Hassan Rouhani said in May that Iran would roll back its commitments under the deal in stages every 60 days in an effort to force the other parties to deliver on their side of the bargain.


Washington used a session yesterday of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors to accuse Iran of extortion after it inched past the deal’s limit on enrichment levels, while still offering to hold talks with Tehran. But Iran’s IAEA ambassador said in a German newspaper interview published yesterday that Tehran intended to preserve the nuclear deal with major powers if all other signatories honored their commitments under it. “Everything can be reversed within a single hour – if all of our partners in the treaty would just fulfill their obligations in the same way,” Gharib Abadi was quoted by the weekly Die Zeit as saying.


Rouhani said yesterday the Islamic Republic’s moves were permissible under the deal, rebuffing a warning by European powers to continue compliance. The Trump administration says it is open to negotiations with Iran on a more far-reaching agreement on nuclear and security issues. But Iran says it must first be able to export as much oil as it did before the US withdrawal.


“There is no credible reason for Iran to expand its nuclear program, and there is no way to read this as anything other than a crude and transparent attempt to extort payments from the international community,” said a Trump administration statement issued at the closed-door session of the IAEA board in Vienna. “We call on Iran to reverse its recent nuclear steps and cease any plans for further advancements in the future. The United States has made clear that we are open to negotiation without preconditions, and that we are offering Iran the possibility of a full normalization of relations.”


In a separate closed-door meeting with member states yesterday, IAEA inspectors confirmed that Iran was now enriching uranium to 4.5 percent purity, above the 3.67 percent limit set by its deal. This would be Iran’s second breach of the deal in as many weeks, diplomats familiar with the figures said. However, that is still far below the 20 percent to which Iran refined uranium before the deal, and the roughly 90 percent needed to yield bomb-grade nuclear fuel.


“The latest steps indicate that Tehran’s leadership has made a decision to move onto the offensive to create leverage vis-a-vis the international community and bring about a solution to its constraints,” a Western intelligence source told Reuters. Washington is set on isolating Iran to force it to negotiate stricter limits on its nuclear program and, for the first time, to address calls to curb its ballistic missile program and its role around the conflict-ridden Middle East. – Agencies