- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2019

The Pentagon said Monday night that it will deploy another 1,000 troops to the Middle East to counter an increasingly emboldened Iran — an announcement that came after Tehran threatened that it is now just 10 days away from surpassing international limits on its enriched uranium stockpile and could soon ramp up nuclear production to near weapons-grade levels.

The bold statement from the Islamic republic’s main atomic energy agency is likely to ratchet up tensions further between Washington and Tehran amid U.S. outcry over last week’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

The Trump administration and several key American allies have blamed the tanker attacks on Iran, which has appeared increasingly eager to use its uranium enrichment to test President Trump’s resolve.

Mr. Trump triggered outrage among Iranian leaders last year when he withdrew the U.S. from the multinational 2015 nuclear accord that limited Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for economic sanctions relief. With European signatories still struggling to keep the accord alive, Iranian leaders have demanded that the U.S. come back to the table or watch as Tehran moves to disregard limits set by the Obama-era deal. That movement now appears well underway.

“We have quadrupled the rate of enrichment and even increased it more recently so that in 10 days it will bypass the 300 kg limit,” Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said Monday during a nationally televised speech from the nation’s Arak Nuclear Complex.

“Iran’s reserves are every day increasing at a more rapid rate,” Mr. Kamalvandi said. He added that Iran intends to enrich uranium up to 20%, a key threshold from which analysts say Tehran could produce weapons-grade uranium relatively quickly.

SEE ALSO: U.S. drone was fired upon by Iranian missile during tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman

Taken together with the oil tanker attacks, some analysts said Monday’s developments underscored how Tehran is growing increasingly belligerent in the face of Trump administration threats of using U.S. military force as an option to contain Iran.

The U.S. threats were amplified Monday night when acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said in a statement that he had authorized the deployment of 1,000 additional American troops “for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East.”

Mr. Shanahan said the U.S. “does not seek conflict with Iran,” but he asserted that “the recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region.”

The deployment, he said, is “to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests. We will continue to monitor the situation diligently and make adjustments to force levels as necessary given intelligence reporting and credible threats.”

The U.S. last month sent an additional 1,500 troops, along with an aircraft carrier and bombers, to the region after reports that Iranian-backed groups were threatening American forces in Iraq.

Regional analysts told The Washington Times that Iran’s provocative behavior is intended to call the Trump administration’s bluff with regard to U.S. military action and to forcing the U.S. back to the negotiating table on nuclear issues.

SEE ALSO: Iran says it will break uranium stockpile limit in 10 days

Tehran’s ultimate goal, the analysts said, is to extract concessions from Washington, such as economic sanctions relief, in exchange for pulling back uranium enrichment and ceasing its attacks on oil tankers in Middle Eastern waters.

“Iran’s real ace in the hole, as it sees it, is the uranium enrichment. And its strategy is to start the clock ticking on that in order to put some degree of pressure back on the U.S.,” said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Its endgame is to have its cake and eat it too — that is, to survive U.S. pressure with its nuclear ambitions intact.

“But at this point it’s difficult to see how that endgame would fit with the U.S. endgame, because the U.S. is not likely to withdraw sanctions until Iran has given up on its nuclear ambitions,” Mr. Phillips said.

The Trump administration has shown no sign of easing pressure on Iran. In addition to the continuing economic sanctions, the White House in April ended a set of sanctions exemptions to eight countries and imposed a global embargo on Iranian crude oil exports.

Analysts say the embargo move precipitated Iran’s alleged attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The attacks could be read as a signal from Tehran that it will make it difficult for any other country to transport oil through the region.

The White House doubled down Monday on its rejection of the Obama-era nuclear accord and offered little indication that it is willing to return to the negotiating table.

“Iran’s enrichment plans are only possible because the horrible nuclear deal left the their capabilities intact. President Trump has made it clear that he will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons,” Garrett Marquis, White House National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement. “The regime’s nuclear blackmail must be met with increased international pressure.”

Mr. Trump said little about the enrichment announcement from Iranian leaders, although he retweeted a Fox News Channel headline about Tehran’s plan to ignore nuclear limits.

“Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limit,” the president tweeted.

It remains to be seen how Monday’s developments will impact U.S. attempts to sway European leaders into alignment with the administration’s hardening posture toward Iran. Several in Europe have sought to save the 2015 nuclear deal and have criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to scrap it.

On a separate front Monday, the Pentagon released fresh information relating to the oil tanker attacks and placed blame entirely on Tehran. Defense Department officials provided photo evidence that they said proves Iranian military personnel used limpet mines — small bombs that attach to ships via magnets — to target the vessels.

Some argue that the incident was a clear example of Iran’s broader strategy.

“Iranians have often approached negotiations not by behaving well and trying to create a positive climate but instead by behaving poorly and making the first concession to return their behavior to the status quo ante,” Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently.

“That way, they get something without really giving something up. There’s brinkmanship involved. They want the world to become concerned and to feel an urgent need for the United States and the Iranians to talk.”

The Pentagon also said Iranian-made missiles have been used in recent days to target American drones in a clear sign of increasing military tension.

U.S. Central Command said an American MQ-9 Reaper drone conducting surveillance around the time of the oil tanker attacks was targeted by “a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile.”

“The SA-7 was ineffective and its closest point of approach to the MQ-9 was approximately one kilometer,” Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Earl Brown said in a statement.

Days before the attempted attack on the Reaper drone in the Gulf of Oman, another MQ-9 was shot down with the same type of Iranian-made surface-to-air missile in Yemen. The June 6 shoot-down was carried out by Tehran-backed Houthi separatists, who are in the midst of a civil war with Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen.

⦁ Carlo Muñoz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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