Acting defense chief says U.S. seeks diplomacy with Iran

Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper arriving at the Pentagon on Monday

Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper arriving at the Pentagon on Monday

The U.S. would prefer a diplomatic solution to war with Iran, acting defense chief Mark Esper said Tuesday as he prepared to urge close U.S. allies to fall in line behind Washington in its ongoing feud with Tehran.

Esper emphasized diplomacy over military action as he briefed reporters for the first time since taking the helm of the USA military on Monday. The former Army secretary was thrust into the position after the surprise resignation of Patrick Shanahan as acting defense secretary the previous week.

That's an extraordinary mission for an interim Pentagon leader at a time of global uncertainty about a range of USA defense and foreign policies - not just on Iran but also on countering China and Russian Federation, preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group and ending the war in Afghanistan. His trip comes amid worries that the USA and the Islamic Republic may be on a path to war, even as the Trump administration ratchets up economic pressure on Tehran.

Shanahan is scheduled to step down from his acting post on Sunday, just days after Trump almost launched military strikes on three Iranian targets before calling the attack off minutes before it was to be launched.

The two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organisation meeting of defense ministers will include talks on numerous most worrisome worldwide security topics: possible war with Iran; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan; the continued fight against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq; and tensions with Russian Federation. Trump did so despite warnings from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies that doing so would inflame tensions and could lead to an unintended conflict.

State Department officials said Monday the administration wants to enlist the help of a wider range of countries to monitor potential threats to commercial shipping in and near the Persian Gulf.

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But Esper suggested the plan was still in its early stages and played down the idea that USA allies would offer up the majority of ships, saying: "Nobody's counting ships or compositions at this point in time".

The 28 allies of the United States are waiting to hear Esper lay out the US strategy for compelling Iran through economic pressure to renegotiate the major worldwide nuclear agreement that the Trump administration pulled out of previous year. "That would be a good first step". "What we're trying to do, what we want to do, is to close the door to conflict and open the door to diplomacy".

Esper is now the third person in six months to work at the defense secretary's desk, stoking fresh questions about leadership at the Pentagon.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, June 25, 2019.NATO defense ministers begin a two-day meeting on Wednesday.

Katie Wheelbarger, a senior Pentagon policy adviser on worldwide security, said the timing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation meeting works well for Esper.

"A North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ministerial is a good way to get to know key partners, kind of like diplomatic speed-dating", said Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration.

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