Amid Iran Tensions, Trump Announces Deployment of 1,500 Troops to Middle East

None of the additional forces are headed to Iraq or Syria, but all meant for 'defensive purposes,' Pentagon says ■ U.S. military: Revolutionary Guards 'directly responsible' for UAE oil tanker attack

File photo: President Donald Trump, flanked by acting Defense Secretary Shanahan and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Dunford, during a meeting with military leaders at the White House, April 3, 2019.
Susan Walsh/AP

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he will send about 1,500 American troops to the Middle East, mostly as a protective measure, amid heightened tensions with Iran.

However, the Republican leader played down the potential for military conflict in the region, saying he believed Iran did not want a confrontation with the United States. 

"We want to have protection in the Middle East. We're going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective," Trump said as he left the White House for a trip to Japan. 

The Pentagon said only about 900 of the 1,500 troops will be newly deploying and that 600 are already in the region and will be extended, adding none of the additional forces are headed to Iraq or Syria, but all meant for "defensive purposes" to counter Iran threat. 

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge sail in the Arabian Sea May 17, 2019.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

It also said they include Patriot missile battery personnel, manning for surveillance aircraft and engineers. 

Also on Friday Trump, saying there is a national emergency because of tensions with Iran, cleared the sale of billions of dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other countries, U.S. senators said, despite strong resistance to the plan from both Republicans and Democrats. 

The administration has informed congressional committees that it will go ahead with 22 arms deals worth some $8 billion, congressional aides said, sweeping aside a long-standing precedent for congressional review of such sales.

The U.S. military said intelligence suggests a "campaign" by Iran that ties together threats across the Middle East, including the assessment that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are "directly responsible" for attacks on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last week.

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"Right now, I don't think Iran wants to fight. And I certainly don't think they want to fight with us," Trump said. 

"But they cannot have nuclear weapons," he continued. "They can't have nuclear weapons. And they understand that."  

Russian lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said on Friday that his country could raise the new U.S. deployment in the at the UN Security Council, RIA news agency reported.

U.S. officials told the Associated Press members of Congress were notified following a White House meeting Thursday to discuss Pentagon proposals to bolster the U.S. force presence in the Middle East.

The forces would help strengthen U.S. defenses in the region, two sources told Reuters earlier on condition of anonymity. They said the forces included engineers. 

Earlier this week, officials had said that Pentagon planners had outlined plans that could have sent up to 10,000 military reinforcements to the region. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan later said planners hadn't settled on a figure.

The U.S. began reinforcing its presence in the Persian Gulf region this month in response to what it said was a threat from Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on Thursday his country will not surrender to U.S. pressure and will not abandon its goals even if it is bombed, stepping up the war of words between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

Earlier on Thursday, Iran's top military chief said the standoff between Tehran and Washington was a "clash of wills", warning that any enemy "adventurism" would meet a crushing response, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Tensions have ratcheted up recently in the Mideast as the White House earlier this month sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceived from Iran. And on Thursday, the Pentagon outlined proposals to the White House to send military reinforcements to the Middle East to beef up defenses against Iran.

After pulling out of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Trump restored U.S. sanctions on Iran last year and tightened them this month, ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

"More than one year after the imposition of these severe sanctions, our people have not bowed to pressures despite facing difficulties in their lives," Rohani was quoted by the state news agency IRNA as saying.

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Addressing a ceremony in commemoration of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he added: "We need resistance, so our enemies know that if they bomb our land, and if our children are martyred, wounded or taken as prisoners, we will not give up on our goals for the independence of our country and our pride."

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister lashed out at President Trump on Friday during a critically timed visit to Pakistan. The remarks by Mohammad Javad Zarif were the latest in a war of words between him and Trump. The Iranian diplomat on Friday assailed the American president for his tweet earlier this week warning Iran not to threaten the U.S. again or it would face its "official end."

"Iran will see the end of Trump, but he will never see the end of Iran," Zarif was quoted by Iran's semi-official Fars new agency as saying during a visit to Islamabad.

The purpose of Zarif's visit to Pakistan, where he held talks with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi and also Prime Minister Imran Khan, was not made public.

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But there has been speculation that Iran is looking to Islamabad and its close relationship with Riyadh to help de-escalate the situation. Ahead of Zarif's arrival, Pakistan's foreign ministry called on "all sides to show restraint, as any miscalculated move, can transmute into a large-scale conflict."

Zarif has been criticized this week by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who named him and President Rohani as failing to implement the leader's orders over Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Khamenei had claimed the deal had "numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses" that could damage Iran.

Separately, the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Zarif in Islamabad as warning of anarchy if world powers don't unite to stop what he called U.S. aggression — Iran's official parlance for Washington's pressure on Tehran.

Khamenei's criticism of Zarif signaled a hard-line tilt in how the Islamic Republic will react going forward amid Trump's maximalist pressure campaign.

Iran declared earlier this month that the remaining signatories to the deal — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — have two months to develop a plan to shield Iran from American sanctions.

On Monday, Iran announced it had quadrupled its production capacity of low-enriched uranium, making it likely that Tehran will soon exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord, which would escalate the situation further.

Several incidents have added to the crisis.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia said Yemen's Iran-aligned rebels again targeted an airport near its southern border with a bomb-carrying drone.

 Escalation in the Gulf, May 2019
Haaretz

The Saudi military said it intercepted the drone, while the rebel Houthis said it struck a Patriot missile battery at the airport. The Houthis have claimed three times in recent days to have targeted the airport, which also hosts a military base. It comes after the Houthis last week targeted a Saudi oil pipeline in a coordinated drone attack.

Pakistan was quick to condemn the attacks and promised Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally, its full support. The kingdom this week announced a $3.2 billion deferred oil and gas payment package for energy-strapped Islamabad.

With neighboring Iran, Pakistan walks a fine line and their relationship is sometimes prickly. Islamabad has little leverage with Washington, although relations between the two have improved since Pakistan expressed readiness to help move talks between the Afghan Taliban and Washington forward.

IRNA also reported that Zarif came to Pakistan with a proposal to link Iran's port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea with Pakistan's Gwadar port, mostly being developed by China as part of the multi-billion-dollar One Road project that will connect the Arabian Sea with China.

The proposal is unexpected because Pakistan's rival India has been Iran's partner in developing Chabahar while Iran's key regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has been in talks to develop an oil refinery facility at Pakistan's Gwadar, though no agreements have been signed.

Meanwhile, Oman's Foreign Ministry said it was working to "ease the tensions" between Iran and the U.S.

The ministry in a series of tweets on Friday morning attributed the comments to Yusuf bin Alawi, the sultanate's minister of state for foreign affairs, and cited an interview in Asharq Al-Wasat, the London-based newspaper owned by a Saudi media group long associated with the Al Saud royal family.

In the interview, bin Alawi warns war "could harm the entire world if it breaks out." He doesn't confirm any current Omani mediation but says both the U.S. and Iran realize the gravity of the situation.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said spoke last week by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Oman, a nation on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been an interlocutor of the West with Iran. The U.S. held secret talks in Oman with the Iranians that gave birth to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.