The US will send hundreds of additional troops and a dozen fighter jets to the Middle East in the coming weeks to counter what the Pentagon has said is an escalating campaign by Iran to plan attacks against the US and its interests in the region.
And for the first time, Pentagon officials on Friday publicly blamed Iran and its proxies for recent tanker bombings near United Arab Emirates and a rocket attack in Iraq.
Donald Trump told reporters Friday that the 1,500 troops would have a “mostly protective” role as part of a build-up that began this month in response to what the US said was a threat from Iran.
The announcement caps three weeks of elevated tensions with Iran, as the administration hurled accusations of an imminent attack and abruptly deployed navy warships to the region. The moves alarmed members of Congress, who demanded proof and details, amid fears the US was lurching toward open conflict.
Adding to the uncertainty, Trump alternated between tough talk and a more conciliatory message, insisting he is open to negotiations with the Islamic Republic. On Friday he seemed to downplay the prospect of conflict when he spoke at the White House.
“Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” he said.
In response, a senior Iranian military commander has said he hoped “rational Americans” would rein in Washington’s “radical elements” and prevent a war.
“We believe rational Americans and their experienced commanders will not let their radical elements lead them into a situation from which it would be very difficult to get out, and that is why they will not enter a war,” Brig Gen Hassan Seifi, an assistant to Iran’s army chief, told the country’s semi-official news agency Mehr on Saturday.
Australia also weighed in, saying it was deeply concerned by Iran’s recent comments, but backed the Iran nuclear deal – officially called the joint comprehensive plan of action – which Trump has heavily criticised.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said her government had made its concerns regarding Iran’s destabilising activities well-known.
“Australia continues to urge Iran to exercise restraint and to comply with its commitments,” she said. “The nuclear non-proliferation objectives of the joint comprehensive plan of action are worthy and serve the best interests of peace, stability and regional security. Australia strongly supports these objectives and encourages parties to the plan to redouble their efforts to honour its provisions.”
In a related move, the Trump administration on Friday used an emergency legal loophole to move ahead with the sale of $7bn in precision-guided munitions and other military support to Saudi Arabia, citing threats the kingdom faces from Iran.
V-Adm Michael Gilday told Pentagon reporters that the US had “very high confidence” that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were responsible for the explosions on four tankers, and that Iranian proxies in Iraq fired rockets into Baghdad. He said Iran also tried to deploy modified small boats that were capable of launching cruise missiles.
The deployments announced Friday include a squadron of 12 fighter jets, manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, and a number of military engineers to beef up protection for forces.
“We are going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective,” the president said at the White House, before setting off on a trip to Japan. “Some very talented people are going to the Middle East right now and we’ll see what happens.”
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Gilday, the joint staff director, did not provide direct evidence to back up claims tying Iran to the attacks. He told reporters the conclusions were based on intelligence and evidence gathered in the region, and officials said they were trying to declassify some of the information so that it could be made public.
The announcement of additional forces was met with mixed reviews.
The chairman of the House armed services committee, Democrat Adam Smith of Washington, called the build-up “unsettling”.
“Leaders from both sides of the aisle have called for de-escalation. At first blush, this move does not fit the bill,” Smith said in a statement Friday. “Without a clearly articulated strategy, adding more personnel and mission systems seems unwise, and appears to be a blatant and heavy-handed move to further escalate tensions with Iran.”
Earlier this week, officials said military planners had outlined options that could have sent up to 10,000 military reinforcements to the region. The acting defence secretary, Patrick Shanahan, later said planners hadn’t settled on a figure. The US currently has about 70,000 troops across the Middle East.
Tension had been rising with Iran for more than a year. The Trump administration withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and reinstated American sanctions that have badly damaged the Iranian economy. The president has argued that the deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East that the US argues destabilise the region.