Skeptical U.S. Allies Resist Trump’s New Claims of Threats From Iran

Tensions between the United States and Iran have sharply increased. John Bolton, the national security adviser, has long pushed for regime change in Iran. One of his chosen replacements is the dissident group Mujahedeen Khalq, known as M.E.K. Doug Mills/The New York Times


XPRESS.AZ May 15, 2019

By Helene Cooper and Edward Wong

WASHINGTON — As the Trump administration draws up war plans against Iran over what it says are threats to American troops and interests, a senior British military official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he saw no increased risk from Iran or allied militias in Iraq or Syria.

A few hours later, the United States Central Command issued an unusual rebuke: The remarks from the British official — Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State — run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”

The rare public dispute highlights a central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran.

Over the last year, Washington has said Iran is threatening United States interests in the Middle East, encouraging aggression by Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, shipping missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen and allowing its naval forces to behave belligerently in the Persian Gulf.

All are concerns that have been leveled against Iranian forces for years.

“We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” General Ghika said.

But he said, “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington — where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner.

One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential internal planning, said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr. Bolton. The official also said the ultimate goal of the yearlong economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States.

Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil and doing business in the American market, and declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization.

And on Tuesday, the State Department ordered a partial evacuation of the American Embassy in Baghdad as a heightened security measure, according to people familiar with the plans.

The anti-Iran push has proved difficult even among the allies, which remember a similar campaign against Iraq that was led in part by Mr. Bolton and was fueled by false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts this week to recruit European countries to back the administration’s steely posture on Iran are being received coolly.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, called for “maximum restraint” after meeting on Monday in Brussels with Mr. Pompeo, a proponent of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Iraqi officials said they were skeptical of the American intelligence that Mr. Pompeo presented last week on a surprise trip to Baghdad. Mr. Pompeo said the threat was to American “facilities” and military personnel in Iraq.

In September, Trump administration officials blamed Shiite militias with ties to Iran for firing a few rockets into the area near the United States Embassy in Baghdad and the American Consulate in Basra. There were no injuries, but Mr. Pompeo ordered the Basra Consulate closed.

Privately, several European officials described Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo as pushing an unsuspecting Mr. Trump through a series of steps that could put the United States on a course to war before the president realizes it.

While Mr. Trump has made no secret of his reluctance to engage in another military conflict in the Middle East, and has ordered American troops home from Syria, his secretary of state and his national security adviser have pushed a maximalist hard-line approach on Iran. Mr. Bolton, in particular, has repeatedly called for American military strikes against Tehran.

At an April military parade in Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s weaponry was for defensive purposes. John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, had advocated a hard-line approach on Iran.

Officials said Mr. Trump was aware that Mr. Bolton’s instinctual approach to Iran could lead to war; aides suggested that the president’s own aversion to drawn-out overseas conflicts would be the best hope of putting the brakes on military escalation.

A spokesman for Mr. Bolton declined to comment.

The Trump administration is looking at plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, The New York Times reported. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump dismissed that as “fake news.” “We have not planned for that,” he told reporters.

But he immediately added, “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

Some of the president’s critics accept that Iran continues to engage in what United States officials call “malign behavior,” be it in Yemen, Syria or the Palestinian territories. But they blamed the administration for aggravating the standoff with Tehran.

“This is a crisis that has entirely been manufactured by the Trump administration,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

He pointed to Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, coupled with the administration’s failure to get any other nations to do so.

“None of the other signatories to the deal were persuaded by the case the U.S. was making,” Mr. Nasr said. “And that is because this administration’s policy on Iran, at a fundamental level, does not have credibility.”


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