The US will move an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran.
President Donald Trump said he ordered the deployment of what he called a “relatively small” number of people to help protect forces already in the region. Earlier this week Patrick Shanahan, the US acting defence secretary, said America’s goal was deterrence, not war.
The US has been taking an increasingly hawkish posture towards Tehran a year after Mr Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran for its part has recently said it will no longer comply with parts of the accord. The tensions have triggered concerns among some lawmakers that hawks in the White House led by John Bolton, the national security adviser, as well as Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, want to lay the groundwork for military action.
This week, however, Mr Shanahan attempted to ease concerns about military conflict, saying the US’s biggest focus is on preventing “Iranian miscalculation”. He said that the administration does “not want the situation to escalate” after lawmakers were briefed about “escalatory action” that the White House says has recently been taken by Tehran.
Speaking to reporters outside the White House ahead of a trip to Japan, Mr Trump said on Friday that the aim of the deployment was “mostly protective”. Addressing Iran’s policy, he insisted: “Right now I don’t think Iran wants to fight, and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us.”
Two weeks ago the White House said the US was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East after intelligence suggested Iran might be preparing to attack American forces.
The administration told congressional leaders earlier on Friday about the new deployment. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, this month said that the White House was taking appropriate measures when it sent the aircraft carrier group to the Gulf.
Any action the administration takes will be “thoughtful” and in consultation with Congress, Mr McCarthy predicted last week. Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, said this week that if Iranian threats against American personnel and interests were activated, the US “must deliver an overwhelming military response. Stand firm, Mr President.”
However, Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky and fierce critic of US overseas military actions, warned on Friday that Mr Trump was making a mistake moving more personnel to the region.
“I strongly urge @realdonaldtrump to reconsider [sending] more troops to the Middle East. This escalation doesn’t get us out of our decades long, seemingly endless wars Mr President. Trust your instincts and follow what you ran on, not the neocons around who want to repeat past mistakes,” Mr Paul tweeted, in a veiled swipe at Mr Bolton.
In the Democratic caucus, several lawmakers have expressed concerns about the risks of any US military action against Iran.
“I’m going to do everything that I can to prevent a war with Iran, because if you think the war in Iraq was a disaster, my guess is that a war in Iran would be even worse,” said Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont and 2020 presidential candidate, shortly ahead of Mr Trump’s announcement.
Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman who is also running in 2020, warned in a tweet that a war with Iran would undermine US national security, lead to a potential confrontation with the Russia and China, and spark a “massive immigration crisis”.