Trump orders 1,000 troops to Middle East amid Iran tensions

Move for ‘defensive purposes’ comes after Iran said it would soon breach nuclear deal

US president Donald Trump: Vacillated on the issue of meeting the Iranians for talks.  Photograph: Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

US president Donald Trump: Vacillated on the issue of meeting the Iranians for talks. Photograph: Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

 

President Donald Trump has ordered 1,000 more US troops to the Middle East amid a dangerous escalation in tension with Iran as Tehran threatens steps that could spark the complete collapse of the landmark nuclear deal signed in 2015.

Patrick Shanahan, acting US defence secretary, said the Pentagon was deploying the forces for “defensive purposes to address air, naval and ground-based threats in the Middle East”. The move comes on the heels of a decision in May to send 1,500 forces to the region because of unspecified threats from Iran.

Mr Trump has previously warned Iran with “severe” consequences if the Islamic Republic targeted US forces. Mr Shanahan said the deployment of additional troops was to protect American personnel in the area.

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran. The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests,” he said.

Underscoring the seriousness of the escalating crisis, the White House on Monday accused Iran of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” after Tehran said it would soon breach part of the nuclear deal the Obama administration – along with the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – signed with the Islamic Republic. Mr Trump withdrew from the deal a year ago, but the Europeans had been trying to ensure that Iran remained in compliance with the nuclear pact.

On Monday, Iran said it would soon exceed limits on its enriched uranium stockpile agreed in the 2015 deal. Iran warned that the development would happen within 10 days, sparking concern in Europe that the deal would collapse as the US continues its campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran.

Oil tankers

The move to bolster the US military presence comes after Mr Trump last week blamed Tehran for attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Washington has also accused Iran of being responsible for four other attacks on tankers in the Gulf in May. Iran has denied all responsibility.

The Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier battle group and B-52 bombers to the region in May after receiving intelligence about what was described as a potential Iranian threat against US forces. While the US has not released images that officials said showed Iranian missiles loaded on to small boats, the Pentagon in recent days has released a video and photographs that US officials argue show that Iran was behind the Gulf of Oman attacks.

A US official on Friday said the White House hoped the “maximum pressure” approach – which includes economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure – would force Iran to come to the table to negotiate a new deal that would address the nuclear issue and also concerns about missiles and alleged terrorist activity. The official added that even if the campaign failed to spark talks, however, it would constrain Iran’s ability to engage in malign activities.

“Iran’s enrichment plans are only possible because the horrible nuclear deal left their capabilities intact,” said Garrett Marquis, spokesmanfor John Bolton, US national security adviser. “President Trump has made it clear that he will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The regime’s nuclear blackmail must be met with increased international pressure.”

Into a corner

But critics are concerned that the Trump administration is pushing Iran into a corner and has not matched its economic pressure with any serious kind of diplomatic track that could help de-escalate the mounting tension.

Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US was partly responsible as Mr Trump had pulled the US out of the nuclear deal. “It’s hard to object too much to Iranian violations of an agreement that the United States itself has renounced.”

“What hasn’t changed is my overall assessment,” he added. “The Iranians are looking to have talks, and the Trump administration sees Iranian aggression as a sign of the pointlessness of talking with the Iranians.”

Mr Trump has previously suggested that he would be willing to meet the Iranian leadership to negotiate a deal, but he has vacillated on the issue, and last week he suggested that it was not the right time to push for talks.

Iran has insisted that the US should accept the existing deal and rejected the idea of returning to the table to negotiate a wide-ranging agreement that goes far beyond the nuclear issues that were included in the 2015 agreement.

Iran’s atomic energy organisation on Monday said the country’s production of low-enriched uranium had increased fourfold and that its stockpile would pass the 300kg limit by June 27.

It also warned that Iran could increase its enrichment of uranium above a purity of 3.67 per cent, the level agreed under the 2015 accord. Increasing enrichment to 20 per cent would be highly provocative because it would bring Iran much closer to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium, which requires 90 per cent purity. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019