U.S. warn­ings remind some of Iraq

White House eyes war plans against Iran, but Euro­pean of­fi­cials dis­pute threat claims

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By He­lene Cooper and Ed­ward Wong

WASH­ING­TON — As the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion draws up war plans against Iran over what it says are threats to U.S. troops and in­ter­ests, a se­nior Bri­tish mil­i­tary of­fi­cial told re­porters at the Pen­tagon on Tues­day that he saw no in­creased risk from Iran or its proxy forces in Iraq or Syria.

A few hours later, the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand is­sued an un­usual re­buke. The re­marks from the Bri­tish of­fi­cial — Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy com­man­der of the U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State — run “counter to the iden­ti­fied cred­i­ble threats avail­able to in­tel­li­gence from U.S. and al­lies re­gard­ing Ira­ni­an­backed forces in the re­gion,” a Cen­tral Com­mand spokesman said in a state­ment.

The rare pub­lic dis­pute high­lights a cen­tral prob­lem for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as it seeks to rally al­lies and global opin­ion against Iran.

Over the past year, Wash­ing­ton has said Iran is threat­en­ing U.S. in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East, en­cour­ag­ing ag­gres­sion by Shi­ite mili­tias in Le­banon and Iraq, ship­ping mis­siles to Houthi rebels in Ye­men and al­low­ing its naval forces to be­have bel­liger­ently in the Per­sian Gulf.

All are con­cerns that have been lev­eled against Ira­ni­ans for years.

“We are aware of their pres­ence clearly and we mon­i­tor them along with a whole range of others be­cause of the en­vi­ron­ment we are in,” Ghika said.

But he said, “No, there has been

no in­creased threat from Ira­ni­an­backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

In­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most ag­gres­sive moves have orig­i­nated not in Tehran, but in Wash­ing­ton — where John Bolton, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, has prod­ded Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump into back­ing Iran into a cor­ner.

One U.S. of­fi­cial said the new in­tel­li­gence of an in­creased Ira­nian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the mil­i­tary plan­ning be­ing driven by Bolton. The of­fi­cial said the ul­ti­mate goal of the pres­sure cam­paign was to draw Iran into an armed con­flict with the United States.

Since May 2018, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has with­drawn from the ma­jor pow­ers agree­ment that curbed Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, reim­posed pun­ish­ing sanc­tions on Tehran, de­manded that al­lies choose be­tween Ira­nian oil and do­ing busi­ness in the U.S. mar­ket, and de­clared the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

On Tues­day, the State Depart­ment ap­peared on the verge of or­der­ing a par­tial evac­u­a­tion of the U.S. Em­bassy in Bagh­dad as a height­ened se­cu­rity mea­sure, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the plans.

It is all part of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s drive to unite the world be­hind U.S. as­ser­tions that Iran is threat­en­ing the United States and its al­lies. The push has proved dif­fi­cult even among the al­lies, who re­mem­ber a sim­i­lar cam­paign against Iraq that was led in part by Bolton and was fu­eled by false claims that Sad­dam Hus­sein had weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo’s ef­forts this week to recruit Euro­pean coun­tries for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s steely pos­ture on Iran are be­ing re­ceived coolly.

Fed­er­ica Mogherini, the Euro­pean Union’s for­eign af­fairs chief, called for “max­i­mum re­straint” af­ter meet­ing on Mon­day in Brus­sels with Pom­peo, a ring­leader of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “max­i­mum pres­sure” cam­paign against Iran.

Iraqi of­fi­cials said they were skep­ti­cal of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence that Pom­peo pre­sented last week on a sur­prise trip to Bagh­dad. Pom­peo said the threat was one to U.S. “fa­cil­i­ties” and mil­i­tary per­son­nel in Iraq.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing at plans to po­ten­tially send as many as 120,000 troops to the Mid­dle East should Iran at­tack U.S. forces or ac­cel­er­ate work on nu­clear weapons, The New York Times re­ported. On Tues­day, Trump dis­missed that as “fake news.” “We have not planned for that,” he told re­porters.

But he im­me­di­ately added, “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

At least some of the pres­i­dent’s crit­ics ac­cept that Iran con­tin­ues to en­gage in what U.S. of­fi­cials call “ma­lign be­hav­ior,” be it in Ye­men, Syria or the Palestinian ter­ri­to­ries. But they blamed the ad­min­is­tra­tion for ag­gra­vat­ing the stand­off.

“This is a cri­sis that has en­tirely been man­u­fac­tured by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Vali R. Nasr, dean of the Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

He pointed to Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull out of the Iran nu­clear deal in May 2018, cou­pled with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to get any other sig­na­to­ries to do so.

That lack of trust has proved to be a ma­jor ob­sta­cle in con­vinc­ing al­lies that Ira­nian be­hav­ior in the re­gion war­rants mil­i­tary ac­tion.

And while act­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Pa­trick Shanahan has care­fully cul­ti­vated a more ac­qui­es­cent stance to Bolton’s de­mands than did his pre­de­ces­sor, Jim Mat­tis, many mil­i­tary of­fi­cials at the Pen­tagon and con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives worry about the es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions. Mat­tis had balked at Bolton’s re­quest for mil­i­tary op­tions against Iran af­ter the U.S. Em­bassy grounds were shelled in Bagh­dad.

“Bolton did the same with Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and Iraq,” Rep. Seth Moul­ton, D-Mass., an Iraq War vet­eran, said in a state­ment last week. “As some­one sent four times to that mis­guided war, I have seen the costs of Bolton’s dis­as­trous for­eign pol­icy in a way he never will — first­hand, and at the loss of thou­sands of Amer­i­can lives.”

One big worry is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has is­sued the most ex­pan­sive type of warn­ing to Iran, with­out stat­ing spe­cific red lines for Tehran’s ac­tions. That has in­creased the chance of a mil­i­tary con­flict start­ing over mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions and mis­cal­cu­la­tions.

In state­ments, Ira­nian lead­ers have re­acted with both bel­liger­ence and diplo­matic re­straint to a se­ries of U.S. ac­tions that they see as provoca­tive. The Ira­nian for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, ridiculed Bolton and three an­tiIran for­eign lead­ers in the Mid­dle East in a tweet on Tues­day as a “#B—Team.”

“In in­ter­views in April, I pre­dicted ‘ac­ci­dents” — not be­cause I’m a genius — but be­cause #B—Team is so brazenly fol­low­ing @Am­bJohnBolton’s script,” Zarif said. “Af­ter all, half of B-Team were co-con­spir­a­tors in dis­as­trous Iraq war.”


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