White House in talks over con­fronting Iran

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MISSY RYAN, JOHN HUD­SON AND CAROL MORELLO

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is dis­cussing a range of op­tions for us­ing mil­i­tary force against Iran, of­fi­cials said Tues­day, as law­mak­ers from both par­ties com­plained that the White House has not fully briefed them on the es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions.

Top ad­vis­ers to Pres­i­dent Trump met at the White House late last week to con­sider pos­si­ble steps, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary ac­tion, as of­fi­cials spoke of “cred­i­ble threats” by Iran or Ira­nian proxy forces to U.S. per­son­nel. The Pen­tagon al­ready has moved an aircraft car­rier, strate­gic bombers and other mil­i­tary as­sets to re­in­force U.S. forces across the Mid­dle East.

Of­fi­cials said the op­tions in­clude in­creas­ing the num­ber of troops in the re­gion, cur­rently be­tween 60,000 and 80,000, to more than 100,000, in the most dra­matic sce­nario were Iran to at­tack U.S. in­ter­ests or make clear moves to de­velop a nu­clear weapon.

The New York Times on Mon­day re­ported that act­ing de­fense sec­re­tary Pa­trick Shanahan, in re­sponse to a re­quest for up­dated op­tions from na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton, put for­ward sev­eral pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing one to de­ploy 120,000 troops.

Speak­ing to re­porters in Wash­ing­ton, Trump char­ac­ter­ized the ar­ti­cle as in­ac­cu­rate but said he would be pre­pared to au­tho­rize an even more mus­cu­lar ap­proach if needed.

“Hope­fully we’re not go­ing to

have to plan for that,” he said. “And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

Trump’s views on the pro­pos­als were not im­me­di­ately clear. In gen­eral, he has sided with end­ing U.S. mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in wars over­seas, al­though he has iden­ti­fied Iran as a chief ad­ver­sary and sought to demon­strate a tough stance on na­tions chal­leng­ing the United States. He is sur­rounded by of­fi­cials with hard-line views on Iran led by Bolton, who has ad­vo­cated for regime change in Iran.

Ira­nian and Amer­i­can lead­ers say they do not want a war but warn that they are pre­pared to use mil­i­tary might if pro­voked. Speak­ing dur­ing a visit to Sochi, Rus­sia, on Tues­day, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo said he had made clear “that if Amer­i­can in­ter­ests are at­tacked, we will most cer­tainly re­spond in an ap­pro­pri­ate fash­ion.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, in a se­ries of mes­sages on Twit­ter, warned that the United States would be forced to with­draw from a con­fronta­tion with Iran. “We don’t seek a war nor do they,” he said. “They know a war wouldn’t be ben­e­fi­cial for them.”

Nev­er­the­less, the in­creas­ing ten­sion has fu­eled con­cern that the two coun­tries might ac­ci­den­tally slide into con­flict. The comments from Khamenei and Pom­peo came sev­eral days af­ter ships be­long­ing to U.S. al­lies were at­tacked near the Per­sian Gulf, an act for which U.S. of­fi­cials sug­gested Iran may be re­spon­si­ble. The in­ci­dent fol­lowed a se­ries of U.S. steps de­signed to iso­late Iran, in­clud­ing the des­ig­na­tion of its Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion and a raft of new sanc­tions af­ter the White House de­ci­sion to pull out of the 2015 nu­clear deal.

Becca Wasser, a pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Rand Corp., said those steps fu­eled sus­pi­cions be­tween the United States and its al­lies on one hand and Iran on the other, rais­ing the risk of a small in­ci­dent snow­balling into a larger con­fronta­tion.

“It’s fairly com­mon to have Ira­nian pa­trol boats ha­rass U.S. car­ri­ers and other ships in the strait,” she said, re­fer­ring to the Strait of Hor­muz, a wa­ter­way off Iran that is key to global com­merce. “You can imag­ine, with some of the height­ened ten­sions, that there could be a greater risk of that exploding into some­thing larger.”

“In dif­fer­ent times, an ac­ci­dent or a mis­take could be re­solved be­cause of open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Iran and the United States,” she added. “Now it could lead to the United States and Iran ac­ci­den­tally stum­bling into some form of es­ca­la­tion.”

Typ­i­cally a range of op­tions is pre­sented by mil­i­tary of­fi­cials when re­quested by civil­ian lead­ers. Some­times, pol­i­cy­mak­ers se­lect one course of ac­tion. Other times, they de­cide to do noth­ing.

U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand main­tains a host of con­tin­gency plans that are up­dated pe­ri­od­i­cally, es­pe­cially when pol­icy or threat in­for­ma­tion changes.

Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, who have pri­vately voiced a strong de­sire to avoid con­flict with Iran, have nev­er­the­less de­scribed the re­cent in­tel­li­gence as sober­ing and say they be­lieve that Iran is ac­tively plan­ning at­tacks on U.S. forces.

Capt. Bill Ur­ban, a spokesman for U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, said the alert level for forces in Iraq and Syria had been in­creased in re­sponse to the re­cent in­tel­li­gence, push­ing back against a state­ment by a Bri­tish gen­eral serv­ing in Bagh­dad as part of the U.S.-led coali­tion that there was no am­pli­fied threat from Ira­nian-backed forces there. That op­er­a­tion “is now at a high level of alert as we con­tinue to closely mon­i­tor cred­i­ble and pos­si­bly im­mi­nent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq,” Ur­ban said.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, and less than half that are in neigh­bor­ing Syria. The U.S. mil­i­tary has troops at a con­stel­la­tion of small and large bases across the re­gion as well as ships that reg­u­larly cir­cu­late nearby.

Pen­tagon and con­gres­sional of­fi­cials said the el­e­ments that con­tributed to the wor­ri­some in­tel­li­gence pic­ture in­cluded Ira­nian mil­i­tary and other threats against diplo­matic fa­cil­i­ties in Bagh­dad and Ir­bil, Iraq. Of­fi­cials also said they be­lieved that Iran may be pre­par­ing to mount rocket or mis­sile launch­ers on small ships.

Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say they do not know why Iran ap­pears to be em­brac­ing a more hos­tile stance but say it is prob­a­bly a re­sult of mount­ing eco­nomic and diplo­matic pres­sures.

Since the United States with­drew from the nu­clear agree­ment a year ago, it has pe­nal­ized al­most 1,000 Ira­nian in­di­vid­u­als and en­ti­ties. U.S. sanc­tions on fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions and oil ex­ports, in par­tic­u­lar, have had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the econ­omy.

In­ter­na­tional nu­clear mon­i­tors have said that Iran has con­tin­ued to meet its com­mit­ments un­der the 2015 agree­ment but that it has threat­ened to re­sume the stock­pil­ing of en­riched ura­nium un­less the Euro­pean Union finds a way to fa­cil­i­tate sanc­tions relief. The Euro­peans, while striv­ing to keep the nu­clear ac­cord alive, are stuck be­tween the hard-line po­si­tions staked out by Wash­ing­ton and Tehran.

The uptick in ten­sions has also rat­tled the State Depart­ment’s top of­fi­cials in charge of diplo­matic se­cu­rity, who on Tues­day post­poned a ma­jor fo­rum of re­gional se­cu­rity of­fi­cers from most em­bassies and con­sulates world­wide. The event, which was sched­uled to in­clude Pom­peo; Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Repub­li­can on the House For­eign Af­fairs Committee; and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), was post­poned be­cause of “in­creas­ing ten­sions with Iran” and the need for se­nior per­son­nel to “re­main in the field to as­sess and re­spond to po­ten­tial threats,” ac­cord­ing to a State Depart­ment memo ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

The event is sched­uled every three to four years and in­volves 300-plus peo­ple, said a State Depart­ment of­fi­cial who like others spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss in­ter­nal lo­gis­tics. “It’s no small pota­toes that Diplo­matic Se­cu­rity chose to can­cel this,” the of­fi­cial said.

The sit­u­a­tion has set off alarm bells on Capi­tol Hill, where Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.) is at­tempt­ing to bring in se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to brief sen­a­tors next week on Iran and other is­sues in the re­gion, ac­cord­ing to three con­gres­sional of­fi­cials ap­prised of the dis­cus­sions.

The ef­fort comes as many law­mak­ers are voic­ing their frus­tra­tion with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for not keep­ing Congress more fully aware of its plans con­cern­ing Iran.

“I think all of us are in the dark over here,” Sen. Lind­sey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Committee, said Tues­day.

Democrats on that committee in par­tic­u­lar have ac­cused their Repub­li­can coun­ter­parts of drag­ging out ef­forts to demand more in­for­ma­tion from the White House.

“It is hard to jus­tify the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions thus far since they in­sist on stonewalling Congress from re­ceiv­ing any specifics about what these in­creased threats ac­tu­ally are and our strat­egy to con­front them,” Sen. Robert Me­nen­dez (N.J.), the top Demo­crat on the committee, said in a state­ment Tues­day.

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