President Trump has ordered the deployment of another 1,500 U.S. troops to the Middle East amid rising tensions with Iran, bolstering the American presence in the region but stoking fears the move will only escalate the situation and move the country closer to a shooting war.
Mr. Trump gave his approval to acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to deploy the additional troops to the Persian Gulf region to deter Iranian threats, after meeting with his military chiefs Thursday evening. The move was smaller than leaked reports this week that up to 10,000 new U.S. troops could be deployed.
“We want to have protection,” Mr. Trump confirmed Friday to reporters at the White House. “We’ll be sending a relatively small number of troops. It’ll be about 1,500 people.”
The extra forces had been requested by U.S. Central Command chief Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie earlier this week. The influx of U.S. forces into the region will “improve our force protection and safeguard U.S. forces,” in the wake of Iranian threats, Mr. Shanahan said in a statement issued Friday.
The move represents “a prudent defensive measure and intended to reduce the possibility of future hostilities,” with Tehran and its regional allies, he added.
Pentagon officials appeared eager to play down impressions that Washington was pushing for war with Iran, despite a string of incidents in recent weeks that have put the two countries on a collision course. But U.S. officials Friday also used the strongest language to date explicitly blaming Iran for some of the recent events, including sabotage of international oil tankers in the Sea of Oman.
“This is an operation driven by intelligence” on the dangers posed to U.S. forces by Tehran, Joint Staff Director Vice Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters at the Pentagon Friday, noting the additional military units being sent into the region matched exactly what Central Command officials had asked for.
But administration critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere urged Mr. Trump to reconsider the move, over doubts about the quality of U.S. intelligence and fears of a re-run of the case made in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
“This escalation doesn’t get us out of our decades long, seemingly endless wars, Mr. President,” Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and frequent critics of overseas military operations, posted on Twitter. “Trust your instincts and follow what you ran on, not the neocons around who want to repeat past mistakes.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, called the new deployment “unwise” and accused the Trump White House of engaging in “a blatant and heavy-handed move to further escalate tensions with Iran.”
“Leaders from both sides of the aisle have called for de-escalation. At first blush, this move does not fit the bill,” Mr. Smith said in a statement.
Adm. Gilday declined to provide details on the U.S. intelligence tying the Iranian regime to recent attacks Saudi oil pipelines and shipping vessels off the coast of Oman, as well as a Sunday rocket attack against the American Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. But he did cite those actions as proof of an Iranian-led and -coordinated operation to pressure the U.S. and its Middle East allies.
Iran has denied a role in the recent aggressive moves, and Tehran-allied Shia militias in Iraq have claimed they did not launch the missile that landed in the Green Zone.
But Adm. Gilday told reporters Friday that “we believe with a high degree of confidence this all stems back to Iran at the highest levels.”
The Pentagon has already sent in the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and an Air Force bomber task force into the Arabian Sea in recent weeks, in response to what U.S. officials say are credible threats from Iranian proxies to U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and elsewhere across the region.
The new tranche of American forces heading into the Middle East, which include a military engineering unit, as well as Air Force fighter squadron, drone units and additional aerial intelligence aircraft, will likely ratchet up tensions in the region even further.
Some analysts said the new troop deployment is the kind of concrete action U.S. allies in the Middle East are looking for from the Trump administration.
Until Friday’s decision, there has been little consistency in Washington’s action to curb Iranian actions in the region, said Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East programs at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace. “The U.S. has lost a lot of leverage because [allies] cannot predict what the U.S. is going to do,” he said.
Such an approach “is good for enemies, but not good for allies,” he added.
As a result, many of Washington’s friends in the region have largely stayed on the sidelines, Mr. Abouaoun said.
“Containing is not effective, in a retail approach. It must be wholesale,” involving political, diplomatic, economic and military means, he added.
But many countries in the region fear getting caught in the crossfire of a U.S.-Iranian war, and some see the Trump administration’s pressure campaign since abandoning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as the catalyst for the most recent tensions.
The decision to send more U.S. troops into the Middle East is “related to what is required for the protection of our forces,” Kathryn Wheelbarger, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said during Friday’s Pentagon briefing.
“We do not see this as provocative,” she added, noting that the Trump administration’s overall ‘maximum pressure’ policy toward Iran has not changed. “The [U.S.] policy objective remains to get Iran back to the negotiating table” she added.