Australia is poised to announce its potential contribution to safeguarding shipping lanes in the Middle East from Iranian attacks after senior ministers discussed the request following talks with US officials.

As Iran claimed America’s allies were too “ashamed” to join the US-led mission to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the United Kingdom became the first country to agree to participate.

Australia’s likely involvement would deliver a much-needed boost to the Trump administration’s efforts to build an international coalition, which has met resistance from European allies.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly put the hard word on the Morrison government during a visit to Sydney on Sunday, saying every country that relied on oil and other goods passing through the strait should contribute.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday the government was “carefully considering” the US request but the intention was to “de-escalate tensions”.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, who also joined Mr Pompeo in the Sydney talks, is travelling this week to Japan and South Korea for meetings with respective leaders Shinzo Abe and Moon Jae-in where he will lobby them to join the coalition.

Three oil tankers have been hijacked and several others attacked as Tehran lashes out over the White House’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on the regime through economic sanctions, including bans on buying Iranian oil.

Despite the reliance on Middle Eastern oil, many countries have been reluctant to join America’s Operation Sentinel because of fears over being dragged into broader military action against Iran, as well as opposition to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from an agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif mocked America’s inability to convince more allies to sign up, saying Mr Trump had left the US isolated.

“Today the United States is alone in the world and cannot create a coalition. Friendly countries are too ashamed of being in a coalition with them,” he said.

While Australia could send a frigate or surveillance plane to help protect shipping lanes, Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said another option would be to helicopter teams of sailors and soldiers armed with 50-calibre machine guns on tankers to fend off attacks.

“Your average civilian tanker doesn’t carry a weapon except maybe a shotgun, but nothing to deter a Quds√ force attaching a limpet mine to the hull,” he said.

“Given the size of the geography, you are probably putting people on a ship for a day and then they would be out of the waters.”

Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry has warned it will respond after Mr Pompeo and Dr Esper floated the possibility of deploying intermediate range missiles to Asia.

Mr Morrison ruled out missiles being deployed to Australia but China said it would not allow “any country to stir up troubles at our doorstep”.

“[The US] has adopted a selfish beggar-thy-neighbour approach in economic affairs while making military deployment and strengthening military allies in the region. It’s crystal clear who is undermining regional stability in Asia-Pacific,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.

“If the US deploys intermediate-range missiles in Asia-Pacific, especially around China, its aim will apparently be offensive. China will not just sit idly by and watch our interests being compromised.”

Mr Morrison will meet the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation head Jens Stoltenberg in Sydney on Wednesday for talks on Afghanistan and tensions with China and Russia.

Source » afr