WASHINGTON, D.C. — Although the United States has taken on an international responsibility of maintaining freedom of navigation in the world’s sea lanes, “that doesn’t mean it’s a U.S.-only problem” to counter threats to the movement of oil through the Persian Gulf, the nation’s second highest military officer said.
“I think there is a [U.S.] military role in defending the freedom of navigation. The question is, to what extent is the international community behind that,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday to a group of reporters.
“If we take this on as a U.S.-only responsibility, the nations that benefit from that movement of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are bearing little or no responsibility for the economic benefit that they gain from the movement of that oil.”
“The circumstances are very different” from the 1980s when during the Iran-Iraq war the U.S. Navy escorted foreign-owned tankers through the Gulf in Operation Ernest Will, and had a number of armed clashes with Iranian forces.
“We got a substantial amount of our oil, during that period in our history, from the Persian Gulf,” he said. “We are now in a position where the bulk of that oil goes to five countries in Asia. And none of those countries have shown any real predilection to stop the Iranians from what they are doing.”
The five nations Selva referred to include China, Japan, South Korea and India, all of which have strong navies.
“So the circumstances are different and the notion that we would project that method of defending the flow of oil into 2019 is probably ill-advised,” Selva said. “I’m not suggesting that we wouldn’t have a role and a significant role to play. But I’m suggesting that this is a bigger problem than just the free flow of oil… It’s a country taking unilateral action against multiple nations, against multiple flags and putting civilian lives at risk in international waters. We, as the international community, shouldn’t tolerate that.”
Selva was adamant that the evidence is strong that Iranian units conducted the attacks on four anchored tankers just outside the Persian Gulf in May and the two attacks of tankers sailing through the Gulf of Oman last week. “The evidence points to Iran,” he said, citing the military sophistication required to attach the small mines to the hulls of ships underway at night, and then to remove one that failed to detonate.
“Iran is lashing out. They’re not lashing out against the United States. They’re lashing out against the international community. They haven’t touched a U.S. asset… and we have to be cautious that we respond only as appropriate.” But Selva modified his earlier rejection of unitary U.S. action, noting that U.S. officials “have been very clear in our messaging [to Iran] that if they engage U.S, forces, or engage U.S. interest in the region, we will respond, whether they do it directly or indirectly.”