Esper on Iran

On July 23, the Senate confirmed Mark Esper as the new U.S. secretary of defense in a landslide 90-to-8 vote. Esper is a West Point graduate and veteran of the 1990-91 Gulf war, the U.S.-led campaign liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. He was subsequently a lobbyist for Raytheon. The following are comments about the Islamic Republic since his appointment. 

Mark Esper Portrait

Q:  Mr. Secretary, if we could go to Iran for a minute; as you know, U.K. has agreed to do maritime controls. 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. 

Q:  You alluded a couple times to impending other announcements. 

SEC. ESPER:  Sure. 

Q:  Do you have a sense of when that could happen?  Are there other announcements? 

But also, what can the U.S. do to broader expand the interest in doing this, because it's clearly been some fence-sitters? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'd say a few things.  I told you all a few days ago that there would be a few announcements and here's the first. 

And so, we welcome the U.K.'s participation.  They're a very capable ally and partner, and we've always enjoyed that special relationship with them.  So we look forward to getting into the details of how we will operate together in the straits. 

And then I think, like I said, over the coming days you may see a few more.  I don't want to put a number on it.  But then over time -- partly this is not -- in some cases each country has a different process by which they go through making these decisions.  That's one of the reasons why we held that sourcing conference in Tampa last week and I told you had we had 30-plus countries attend, there was a range of interests:  some very positive, some less so. 

And -- but in each case every country has a different process to go through to come to -- to come to a final determination.  In some cases, they have to go to their parliament.  You know, I don’t know what is (inaudible). 

But this is a long way of saying it takes time in some cases, to kind of get people to come up with a final answer, so we've -- 

Q:  Are -- are there -- 


SEC. ESPER:  -- just got to be patient. 

Q:  -- are there ways the U.S. can tweak the request to make it more appealing, one?  And, two, when did some of the details get worked out with the Brits? 

SEC. ESPER:  I think we're -- I think we remain open to adjustments, if you will, or tweaks.  But we have to see what those are. 

Again, at the end of the day, what we're trying to do is maintain maritime surveillance, monitoring of the straits.  Number two, affirm our view of the importance of freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce.  And, number three, deter provocative acts by the Iranians that can lead to conflict.  We do not want conflict with Iran. 

So if we can accomplish those three things with a very robust international presence, then I think we're all better off for it, including Iran, frankly. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, Japan kind of has some relationship with Iran.  Would you prefer to see Japan join a coalition, like Operation Sentinel?  And if they decide not to, how do you see that impacting the alliance? 

SEC. ESPER:  I think any -- any and every country that has an interest in freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce, needs to really consider and in (inaudible) to be involved in this type of -- this monitoring of the Strait, the Gulf. 

Again, what we're trying to do is affirm four principles, four values.  Just like we're trying to affirm, here in the Indo-Pacific, four values of freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce, sovereignty, et cetera.  And so I think it's something that the Japanese should strongly consider.  I'll be discussing this with them, as I will with my counter partners on this (inaudible). 

Q:  If they don't join the coalition, do you think there is some kind of moderating role they could play between the U.S. and Iran? 

SEC. ESPER:  I don't want to hypothesize with respect to -- you know, we'll take it one step at a time. 

—August 6, 2019, at a media availability on a trip to Tokyo  


"From the get-go, the United States has been very clear that the purpose of our proposed operations in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman has been twofold – first of all, to promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce through all waterways, particularly that one, number one.  Number two is to prevent any provocative actions by Iran that might lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.

And so when we first advanced this idea several weeks ago, we had a good response from some of our allies and partners.  We continue to develop that idea.  Just last week I was in Central Command in Tampa, Florida, where we had a resourcing conference.  Over 30 countries attended that.  We got various degrees of response.  I think there’ll be some announcements coming out in the coming days, but needless to say, I think the purpose remains the same whether it’s an operation conducted under United States command and control or conducted by somebody else – a European partnership.  I think both fulfill the same purpose: a unity of effort with regard to ensuring freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas, and also deterring provocative behavior so that we get any type of discourse between the international community and Iran back on the diplomatic path, back on that track, and not on one headed toward conflict."

—August 4, 2019, at a press conference in Australia 


"We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it.”

“To the degree United States vessels need escort, we will be there, we will be available to them… I use ‘escort’ broadly. ‘Escort’ doesn’t mean a warship would be sailing right behind a commercial vessel.”

“We would want to prevent the Iranians seizing or stopping a ship, certainly for any arbitrary reason whatsoever."

—July 24, 2019, at a Pentagon press conference


“We’re trying to deescalate and at the same time message them very clearly that without preconditions, any time, any place, we are willing to meet with them and talk about how we get back into a negotiation.” 

“In some cases that may be strictly an overhead capability. It may mean there is a US naval warship within proximity to deter it […] I don’t necessarily mean that’s every US flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it.”

—July 24, 2019, in an interview with reporters


“I agree we do not want war with Iran, we are not seeking war with Iran, we need to get back on the diplomatic channel.”

—July 16, 2019, in a Senate confirmation hearing


Iran is the United States’ most formidable conventional and unconventional threat in the Middle East. Its unconventional, naval, and missile capabilities are its primary military capabilities. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods (IRGC-QF) directs, trains, supplies, and funds Shia groups across the region to advance Iran’s interests. Proxies give Iran unconventional options for operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. The IRGC-QF also has longstanding bonds with select Sunni groups, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, HAMAS, and the Taliban. Iran’s Navy is capable of only a limited menu of operations, but it is the Persian Gulf’s preeminent naval force and features many small boats and naval mines that can complicate freedom of movement. Iran has the region’s largest surface-to-surface missile (SSM) arsenal, including both ballistic and cruise missiles and mobile launchers. Some of the SSMs have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers.

The “maximum pressure” campaign is primarily a diplomatic and economic effort to curb Iranian destabilizing activities in the region and pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table. DoD’s policy in the Middle East is to support stability in the region, continue to develop our partners’ capabilities through security cooperation, maintain freedom of navigation and commerce, deter Iranian aggression, and, if necessary, respond to attacks.

The President has been clear in offering talks to the Iranians without any preconditions. The State Department is leading this effort. The Department of Defense is postured to dissuade further aggressive actions to encourage the diplomatic effort.

—July 16, 2019, in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee 


"We do not seek armed conflict with Iran but we are ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region. No one should mistake restraint for weakness.”

"I discussed the need to internationalize this issue by encouraging NATO allies and regional partners to voice their opposition to Iran's bad behavior and to help us deter further provocative acts by improving maritime security.”

—June 27, 2019, in a meeting at NATO headquarters


“This is not Iran versus the United States. This is Iran certainly versus the region, and arguably the broader global environment. This is the reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead.”

—June 27, 2019, to reporters while traveling to a NATO meeting


“Russia and China, we think that is the most dangerous threat, but also if you look around the world… look at North Korea, look at Iran in many ways — we find that in many cases they are using equipment produced by a Russia or a China, they are employing the tactics developed by a Russia or a China, so in many ways the force we intend to build will be well-prepared to deal with conflicts… against an Iran or some other less than near-peer threat.”

—May 20, 2019, to reporters at the Atlantic Council