UK joins US maritime security initiative, as talks with Iraq, others continue

With Boris Johnson as the UK’s new prime minister, the country has joined the US maritime security initiative to protect international shipping in the Persian Gulf.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) — With Boris Johnson as the UK’s new prime minister, the country has joined the US maritime security initiative to protect international shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Amb. John Bolton, White House National Security Adviser, emphasized this point on Tuesday while on an official trip to London. Bolton is the highest ranking US official to visit there since July 24, when Johnson replaced Theresa May as Britain’s leader.

US and UK officials now expect a closer relationship between the two countries. Ideologically, Johnson’s worldview is much closer to that of US President Donald Trump than was Theresa May’s.

The two leaders have spoken regularly since Johnson assumed his new position, Bolton told journalists, and they are “off to a roaring start.”

“Boris Johnson has been the Prime Minister for what, 18 days?,” Bolton asked. “They’ve already had five or six phone calls.”

Bolton welcomed Britain’s agreement to join Operation Sentinel, as the US maritime security initiative is called. That “reflects a change from the prior government,” he said, explaining that, “Britain’s original preference,” under Theresa May, “was to participate in some kind of European operation in the Gulf.”

Operation Sentinel grew out of the increasing tensions with Iran that have accompanied the US “maximum pressure” campaign to force Tehran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal by cutting off its oil exports.

As the US sanctions began seriously to hurt its economy, Iran started to sabotage ships near the Strait of Hormuz, or so the US has charged. Six ships were damaged in May and June, and on June 20, Iran downed a US surveillance drone. The US was on the verge of responding with a major military strike, when President Donald Trump decided against it.

READ MORE: Trump ends day of conflicting signals by calling off strike on Iran

Instead, the Trump administration opted to establish Operation Sentinel to protect shipping around the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.

Washington then began to recruit other countries to participate in the military operation. As Trump has made clear, he is firmly convinced that the US bears too much of the burden for collective defense, and he regularly prods US allies to do more.

Most of Iraq’s oil exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz. On Monday, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed al-Hakim, tweeted his country’s rejection of any foreign forces protecting Gulf shipping.

In doing so, Hakim used language that echoed Iran’s and which was also reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He referred to the Israeli navy as “Zionist forces”—as if to underscore that Iraq does not recognize the Jewish state.

“Iraq rejects the participation of the Zionist forces in any military force to secure the passage of ships in the Arabian Gulf. Together, the Arab Gulf states are able to ensure the safe passage of ships,” Hakim posted on his official, Iraqi Foreign Ministry Twitter account.

READ MORE: Iraq joins Iran in rejecting Israel's participation in US-led naval mission in Gulf

But the US appears to have given Hakim’s statement little weight. As a State Department spokesperson affirmed to Kurdistan 24, “We believe the International Maritime Security Construct is an important effort to safeguard freedom of navigation.” She added, “We will continue to discuss the initiative with our partners and friends, including Iraq, to ensure we have broad participation.”

Before Bolton left for the UK, there was considerable media speculation that he would try to persuade Britain’s new government to reject the Iranian nuclear accord, as the US has done.

Little news emerged about that issue during Bolton’s trip. However, the new British government has, so far, on this point, continued the policy of the previous government.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, visited the US last week. At a press availability in Washington, he said, “We continue to want to make the [nuclear] deal work, and more broadly, I would just say, de-escalate tensions so far as we can,” even as he also affirmed the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the area.

Editing by Nadia Riva