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U.S. Officials Working To Build Up Maritime Coalition To Deter Further Iranian Attacks


After President Trump announced last week that he had called off airstrikes against Iran, he promised to take other nonmilitary measures to increase pressure on the country. Today, we are getting a sense of what those measures are - a new set of sanctions and an effort to build up a maritime coalition in the Persian Gulf to deter further Iranian attacks. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump is now taking aim at Iran's supreme leader and is expected to single out Iran's foreign minister for sanctions later in the week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sanctions imposed through the executive order that I'm about to sign will deny the supreme leader and the supreme leader's office and those closely affiliated with him and the office access to key financial resources and support.

KELEMEN: He calls it a strong and proportionate response to Iran's provocative actions. Last week, the president cited concerns about potential casualties when he called off a military strike against Iran that had been drawn up in response to the downing of a U.S. drone. Asked whether the sanctions were in response to that, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says, in part.


STEVEN MNUCHIN: Some of this was in the works. Some of this is a result of recent activities.

KELEMEN: And not just the downing of the drone. The Trump administration also blames Iran for recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Iran's ambassador to the U.N., Majid Ravanchi, denies that. He's calling on the U.S. to stop its, quote, "military adventurism in the Persian Gulf." His comments came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to build up a coalition to deter Iran. Separately, Special Representative Brian Hook was separately visiting Oman, describing his meetings this way.

BRIAN HOOK: We've talked about ways that we can enhance maritime security and do what we can to restore deterrence in this part of the region, which needs to be more stable and more secure.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials are calling it the Sentinel program. The idea is to keep eyes on all shipping in the region. Officials won't say what countries are likely to join or what exactly they will do. As one U.S. official put it, there will be cameras, binoculars and ships, including from the U.S.

As he sat down with Emirati leaders today, Secretary Pompeo made clear that President Trump is keen to share the burden.


MIKE POMPEO: We'll need you all to participate.

KELEMEN: Pompeo calls on military folks in the United Arab Emirates to participate in the maritime security effort and says another 20 countries are needed for what's likely to be a lengthy campaign.

Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security was working in the Pentagon when the Obama administration faced similar challenges from Iran in 2011 and '12.

ILAN GOLDENBERG: And what the U.S. did at that moment was less loud huffing and puffing, more quiet signaling, very firmly signaling to the Iranians in private that this was unacceptable and if they kept going, they risked a major conflict with the United States.

KELEMEN: He says that message got through loud and clear. The current point person on Iran, Brian Hook, says there are no back channels operating now with Iran, but he insists the Trump administration is giving Iran what he calls off-ramps.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.