A “credible threat” of Iranian attacks on American interests in the Middle East led President Trump to suddenly bump up the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the region, top administration officials said Monday in an escalation that critics fear could lead to a military clash with Iran.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said the move, which was announced unexpectedly Sunday night and was quickly met by threats from Iran that it may restart key aspects of its nuclear weapons program, will send a clear message that the U.S. is prepared to use force if necessary.
While others in the administration stressed that they are not seeking war with Iran, officials at the Pentagon and State Department provided little detail on the Iranian threat that spurred Mr. Trump’s decision to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force two weeks ahead of schedule.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill suggested that they have seen evidence that Iranian-backed Shiite militias inside Iraq were plotting attacks against American troops stationed there. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that U.S. diplomatic personnel in the region had been alerted to potential threats but offered no details.
The development comes just days after Mr. Trump dramatically increased economic pressure on Iran by expanding his administration’s push to uphold a global embargo on purchases of Iranian crude oil.
The strong moves underscore his growing impatience with Tehran and could indicate an increasing desire within the administration to punish Iran for the actions of its proxy groups, which are operating in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere across the Middle East.
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The bumped-up USS Abraham Lincoln deployment “represents a prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces,” Mr. Shanahan said. “We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation. We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on U.S. forces or our interests.”
The USS Abraham Lincoln, which has been conducting routine naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, was deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2012 after Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow but vital oil shipping channel between the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
The administration ended the U.S. carrier presence in the region last year. The Navy currently has no carrier positioned in the Persian Gulf, although the USS Abraham Lincoln and other warships are known to make occasional scheduled patrols through the area.
National Security Adviser John R. Bolton announced Sunday night that the carrier group was being deployed to the Middle East. “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Bolton made no mention of any previously scheduled plan for the USS Abraham Lincoln to travel to the Middle East, but other officials indicated that the carrier was already slated to visit the region. One U.S. defense official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that Mr. Bolton’s announcement meant the carrier will arrive about two weeks earlier than planned after exercises in the Mediterranean region.
Confluence of events
A confluence of events have ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran, including violence in Israel that U.S. officials blame on Iranian proxy activity.
While apparently not a factor in the USS Abraham Lincoln deployment, Iran’s ongoing financial and logistical support for the Palestinian group Hamas was thrust into the spotlight this week as militants fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.
The two sides reached a tentative cease-fire agreement Monday.
Adding to tensions, the Trump administration last week cracked down on Iranian oil exports by ending waivers to nations that had been permitted to purchase the oil without the threat of sanctions from Washington.
Administration officials have said Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will make up for any global oil shortfalls generated by the crackdown, but fuel exports from those countries would have to flow through the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran could seek to close the channel in retaliation.
Iranian officials last month threatened to close the strait after the White House designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. In August, Iran sent dozens of small boats into the strait in a provocative show of force.
With tension so high, Iranian media reported Monday that President Hassan Rouhani may announce this week the restarting of major components of the country’s nuclear program. The move would be a direct response to Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. one year ago from the 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Iran.
“Partial and total reduction of some of Iran’s commitments and resumption of some nuclear activities which were ceased following [the U.S. exit of the nuclear deal] are the first step by Iran responding to [the] US’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the lack of commitment from European countries to meet their vows,” the Iranian Students’ News Agency reported.
Just days ago, nerves were set on edge across the region by the emergence of a video that showed reclusive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vowing revenge for the terrorist group’s loss of territory in Syria and Iraq.
But details surrounding an impending Iranian threat to U.S. troops were scarce Monday.
Pentagon spokesman Charles E. Summers Jr. said officials had received “indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests.”
Key lawmakers focused on the prospect of attacks against U.S. forces by Iran-backed proxies in Iraq.
“We will not distinguish between attacks from Shia militias in Iraq & the IRGC that controls them,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, tweeted Monday. “Any attack by these groups against U.S. forces will be considered an attack by Iran & responded to accordingly.”
Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, said he has “a responsibility to keep the officers that work for me safe each and every day all around the world. That includes in Irbil and Baghdad, in our facilities in Amman, all around the Middle East.”
“And so anytime we receive threat reporting, things that raise concerns, we do everything we can both to do all that we can to make sure that those planned or contemplated attacks don’t take place, and to make sure that we’ve got the right security posture,” the secretary of state told reporters traveling with him on a visit to Finland, where he is attending an annual meeting of the Arctic Council.
“The American people should know we’ve done that,” he said.
Regional analysts said Mr. Rouhani and other Iranian officials are likely to downplay the U.S. military move in public but that the American show of force will surely have a behind-the-scenes impact that could change Tehran’s calculus.
“There’s a public and a private response,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks Iran. “The Iranians are likely to say … they think nothing of it, and they’ll likely use it as a signal of American hostile intentions toward Iran. But in reality, this certainly gets their attention.”