U.S. warnings remind some of Iraq
White House eyes war plans against Iran, but European officials dispute threat claims
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Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil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.”