- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2019

President Trump and the Pentagon pushed back Thursday at reports of an imminent surge of U.S. forces in the Middle East to confront Iran, while acknowledging that Tehran’s recent aggressive behavior remains a focus of prime concern.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan dismissed news leaks this week that up to 10,000 U.S. troops would soon be heading to the region, but did admit administration officials were weighing an uptick in the American military presence in the region.

Shortly before getting a briefing from Mr. Shanahan at the White House on the latest tensions with Iran, Mr. Trump made clear that Washington was keeping its powder dry for now.

“We’ll see what happens with Iran,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “I don’t think we’re going to need [the additional troops], I really don’t, but … I would certainly send troops if we need them.”

Tensions have soared in the region in recent weeks as Iran has lashed out in the face of increasingly harsh U.S. sanctions on its vital oil, gas and metals exports. Both sides have accused the other of escalating the clash in recent days, amid a string of provocations that Washington blames on Iran and its regional proxies.

Mr. Shanahan said he was briefing Mr. Trump and White House aides on the current security situation in the region, as well as holding additional talks with U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. on the Iranian threat. But he said reports that a firm decision to send a set number of new U.S. troops to the Middle East had been made were wrong.

“What we’re looking at is: Are there things that we can do to enhance force protection in the Middle East?” he told reporters at the Pentagon, ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on Wednesday.

While Mr. Shanahan did acknowledge internal deliberations over bolstering the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, he flatly denied any decision on troop numbers had been made.

“There is no 10,000 [troops] and there is no 5,000,” he said.

He declined to detail his talks with Gen. McKenzie, who reportedly asked for the additional U.S. troops, but noted the discussion fell in line with the routine communication between commanders in the field and the Pentagon.

“This was the normal back-and-forth that we have with [Central Command]. We’re at a high elevated level, given all of the dynamics that are in the Middle East,” Mr. Shanahan said.

The fears of rising Iranian aggression have already prompted the White House to deploy the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and an Air Force bomber task force to the region. Any future deployments of American troops or resources to the region will depend on Tehran’s actions going forward.

“This gets back to the risk of Iranian miscalculation,” Mr. Shanahan said, regarding the possibility of increasing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. “We’re very protective of our men and women. We’re very protective of our interests in the region.”

Both President Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both said in recent days that they are not seeking a war, after a string of provocative incidents and new U.S. intelligence suggested Tehran and its proxies were stepping up their pressure campaign against the U.S. and its regional allies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Thursday that Mr. Trump evaluates the U.S. “force posture” in the region “every day.”

“We’re evaluating the risks, making sure that we have it right,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Mr. Trump has said a number of times he is not seeking a war with Iran, but has also warned Iran against further provocations.

On Sunday, the president tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”

— Guy Taylor and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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