Donald Trump escalates Iran conflict as world frets
President Trump defended his aggressive Iran policy Wednesday, claiming his expanding pressure campaign will force Tehran into direct talks, even as critics and supporters alike on Capitol Hill demanded explanations and American allies overseas expressed concerns about another war in the Middle East.
Mr. Trump lashed out at news outlets for suggesting disagreements are rife within in his administration over the policy and that Washington is being led into dangerous brinkmanship by hawkish National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a longtime advocate of regime change in Tehran.
“There is no infighting whatsoever,” the president said in a Twitter message hours after the State Department announced the withdrawal of nonessential U.S. government personnel from Iraq over unspecified threats that administration officials have for days said are linked to nearby Iran.
The withdrawal mirrored a similar personnel pullout that the administration ordered back in September after rockets from Iran-backed militants landed near the U.S. Consulate in southern Iraq.
Wednesday’s personnel withdrawal fueled more unease among allies operating in the region, including Germany and the Netherlands, which both quickly suspended their own military assistance programs in Iraq.
Still, German officials appeared to resist the Trump administration’s claims about intelligence pointing to imminent threats from Iran.
Such intelligence has been a focal point of discussion on Iran since last week when the administration suddenly bumped up the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the region. The move was made in concert with the one-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The carrier deployment, coupled with the claims about intelligence on threats from Iran, have triggered frustration among European allies who were signatories to the Obama-era deal and have spent the past year trying to keep it alive.
On Tuesday, a top British commander working within a U.S.-lead coalition of forces in Syria and Iraq both of which border Iran and harbor Iran-backed proxies disputed the administration’s claims about imminent danger. Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika told a news conference that there has been “no increased threat” from Tehran’s proxies in Iraq or Syria.
The Pentagon pushed back at his comments. Capt. Bill Urban asserted that they had “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies.”
Germany’s military, meanwhile, made it clear that its decision to suspend training in Iraq had nothing to do with any imminent threat to troops.
As for the Netherlands, Dutch state broadcaster NOS said its 50-member military mission in Iraq was also being halted “until further orders.” It quoted a Defense Ministry spokesman as saying he couldn’t elaborate on any threats. It said the Dutch forces primarily train Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Others in the region said they were scrambling to facilitate a diplomatic exit ramp for Washington and Tehran. Qatar’s foreign minister has held talks with his Iranian counterpart in recent days to defuse the escalating tensions. Al Jazeera reported Wednesday that U.S. officials were aware of the talks in advance, but it remains to be seen what will come of the effort.
One high-level diplomat from the region told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that “tensions are very high right now in the region, which is really not ready for more destabilization, especially at a moment when Islamic State has finally lost its territory in Syria and Iraq.”
The question now is whether threats posed by Iran not the Islamic State are as grave or as urgent as the Trump administration claims.
Iraqi security sources have said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his surprise trip to Iraq this month, spoke of U.S. intelligence picking up communications related to the movement of rockets in Iraq by Iran-backed militias there.
Mr. Pompeo told top Iraqi military officials that Iraqi forces need to keep the Iran-backed militias in check, according to Reuters, which said the secretary of state warned that Washington would respond with force if the militias aren’t contained.
“The message from the Americans was clear. They wanted guarantees that Iraq would stop those groups threatening U.S. interests,” said a senior Iraqi military source with knowledge of Mr. Pompeo’s May 7 visit to Baghdad. “They said if the U.S. were attacked on Iraqi soil, it would take action to defend itself without coordinating with Baghdad.”
The report could not be immediately verified Wednesday. Mr. Pompeo’s office did not respond to a request by The Washington Times for comment.
But the notion that Tehran seeks to use its proxies in Iraq to foment a military clash is being weighed carefully by analysts.
Trita Parsi, a U.S.-based Iran analyst and author of several books on policy toward Tehran, said the Iranians are backed into a corner by economic pressure and are baiting Washington because they believe they have no other options.
“I think Tehran is going to play ball with John Bolton and say, ‘Look, if you want to escalate this, fine, let’s do it.’ But Tehran is taking that approach from the belief that when this thing gets to crunch time and Trump needs to make a decision on whether to go to war, his instinct will be to back off,” Mr. Parsi said.
“This is all extremely risky because, who knows, maybe Trump will go to war,” he said, adding that Tehran is banking on the idea that “Trump is smart enough to know that’s not a good option because it would destabilize the Middle East and would be a disaster for his presidency because a big part of his voting bloc wants him to stay out of wars, not start them.”
There have been some signs this week that neither side wants things to escalate further than they already have.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted by Iranian state media as saying “we don’t seek a war nor do they. They know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them.”
Mr. Pompeo said Tuesday that the U.S. is not seeking war but will “respond in an appropriate fashion ... if American interests are attacked” in the region.
The comments coincided with a report in The New York Times that said the White House is considering a plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the region should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump denied the report Tuesday, calling it “fake news,” but suggested his frustration was not with the notion of a large deployment. “Would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully, we’re not going to have to plan for that,” Mr. Trump said. “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Such talk sent concerns soaring on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle criticized the administration’s decision to suddenly pull diplomatic personnel from Iraq without briefing Congress.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that while Iran “remains the largest state sponsor of terrorism and the source of some of the greatest threats to our national security,” Washington “should not forget that 16 years ago, the United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of distorted and misrepresented intelligence.”
“Today, we’re hearing a great deal of unexplained rhetoric from the administration about Iran,” Mr. Engel said. “Given the dangers of miscalculation and everyone’s desire to avoid another Iraq, the administration must inform Congress immediately of any evidence of a new Iranian threat and Congress must take the utmost care in assessing this intelligence.”
Lawmakers deserve an explanation, Sen. Robert Menendez said.
“The Trump administration has not provided any information at all to this committee on the intelligence behind their decisions or what they plan to do in Iraq or Iran,” the New Jersey Democrat said Wednesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said he agreed with Mr. Menendez despite otherwise supporting aggressive actions against Iran.
“I would urge the State Department and [the Pentagon] to come down here and explain to us what’s going on,” Mr. Graham told reporters at the Capitol. “I have no idea what the threat stream is beyond what I read in the paper.”
Others were more forgiving.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, said the notion that the Trump administration wants to enter a conflict with Iran is “ludicrous.”
“The idea that the administration wants to get into armed conflict with Iran it may make good for political back and forth but it’s not true. They’re not pining for armed conflict,” Mr. Kinzinger told CNN.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, praised Mr. Trump’s handling of the situation, compared with the Iran policy of President Obama. “If we had Obama, do you remember the first thing he did? He was, he was pacifying people,” Mr. Inhofe told The Times. “That doesn’t work when you’re dealing with terrorists, and so it’s just the opposite. This president moved assets in there so that they see a carrier group coming, they see a battle group coming in. They see all these resources, and so they know this guy is for real.”
⦁ Lauren Meier and Bailey Vogt contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire reports.