The US has urged Australia to join a “global coalition” to police troubled Persian Gulf waters as an emboldened Iran announced it had seized another tanker.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a whirlwind weekend trip to Australia to ask for help to make the Strait of Hormuz safe for international ships passing Iran.
The request comes as Australia negotiates with the US to buy millions of barrels of oil to boost dangerously low levels of fuel held on domestic soil.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: US and Australia have an ‘unbreakable relationship.’
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) August 4, 2019
The Morrison government is talking with the Trump administration to access the oil from America’s own fuel reserve, as Australia searches for a means to address dwindling local supply.
Australia has enough petrol and crude oil to last just 28 days – well below the 90 days mandated by an international agreement.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said Australia was talking to the US about tapping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
“The government has undertaken a second initiative since the election to ensure that we continue to deliver increased security for Australians,” he said on Monday.
“Access through a contractual arrangement would greatly boost our stocks and flexibility of supply.”
Mr Taylor has not outlined how much any deal would cost, merely saying it would be “effective but also efficient” for taxpayers.
It would take 20-40 days for oil reserves to be sent to Australia from the US, the Minister told ABC radio.
The hunt for other options has accelerated as the situation in the Persian Gulf becomes more volatile .
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claimed to have captured a yet-to-be-identified foreign oil tanker and detained seven crew it says were smuggling fuel.
The vessel was intercepted near Iran’s Farsi Island in the Gulf, according to Iran’s news agency Fars.
“The IRGC’s naval forces have seized a foreign oil tanker in the Persian Gulf that was smuggling fuel for some Arab countries,” state television quoted the Guards commander Ramezan Zirahi.
It was carrying 700,000 litres of fuel, he said, without elaborating on the nationalities of the detained crewmen and which country or company owned the ship.
“The seizure of the oil tanker was in coordination with Iran’s judiciary authorities and based on their order,” Fars reported.
“It was taken to the Bushehr port, where its fuel was handed over to the authorities.”
Mr Pompeo has asked Australia to help confront Iran given its “unprovoked attacks on international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz”.
“We’re asking every nation that has energy needs, that has goods and services passing through, to contribute to our effort,” he said.
Mr Pompeo described the call to action in the Persian Gulf as a comprehensive program to head off a physical military conflict and protect the economies of countries including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
“Australia could join in a number of ways. It’s a highly capable, sophisticated military. There are many assets it could deploy,” he said.
There is no better, stronger, or deeper relationship than the one we share with #Australia. In my meetings with @ScottMorrisonMP, @MarisePayne, and @Lindareynoldswa, we discussed our steadfast and continuing U.S.-Australia alliance. #USwithAUS pic.twitter.com/K1RbyyaTlY
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) August 4, 2019
Donald Trump has been trying to forge a military coalition to secure Gulf waters, though European allies have been loath to join for fear of provoking open conflict.
European parties to the deal – Britain, France and Germany – have appealed for diplomatic moves to defuse the crisis and have been trying to salvage the pact by exploring ways to shield Iran’s economy from US sanctions.
Australia’s Defence minister Senator Linda Reynolds said Canberra was giving the request “very serious consideration”.
A spokesman for the US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said they had no information to confirm the latest tanker seizure.
Tensions have been rising between Iran and the West since last year when the United States pulled out of a 2015 nuclear pact and resumed sanctions against Iran.
Iran responded by announcing it would increase its uranium enrichment and has since been capturing and attacking tankers passing through international waters in the Gulf.
Britain has described Stena Impero’s capture as illegal and rejected the idea of releasing the Iranian tanker in exchange for the British-flagged vessel.
Britain said on July 25 it had started sending a warship to accompany all British-flagged vessels through the Strait.
Iran also has threatened to block all exports through the Strait of Hormuz, if countries heed US calls to stop buying Iranian oil. A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait from Middle East crude producers to major markets.
The secretary of state will fly out of Sydney on Monday morning heading to Micronesia.