Edward Wong and Eric Schmitt
c.2019 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials said Monday that new threats by Iran against U.S. troops in Iraq were behind the sudden deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf.
The White House and Pentagon made the decision after seeing intelligence that showed new activity on the part of Iranian-aligned forces since Friday, said two senior officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Additionally, one official noted new concerns in waterways where Iranian maritime forces operate.
The officials would not provide specific details about the threat posed by Iranian forces or Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Tehran’s military. Col. Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, declined to comment.
The new movement of U.S. military forces was announced by John Bolton, the national security adviser, on Sunday night.
The deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was intended “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said in a statement.
He added that “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 Guards Corps or regular Iranian forces.”
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump notably backed up assertions by Bolton that the 5,200 U.S. troops currently in Iraq should stay there to “watch Iran.” Iraqi leaders quickly pushed back, saying they feared that the United States was trying to use its troop presence in Iraq to further its own goals of isolating Iran.
Trump at the time harkened back to his brief visit in December to see U.S. troops at Al-Asad ase in western Iraq and suggested that U.S. forces there could be used to carry out surveillance on Iran.
The new assertion that Iran or its proxies are planning attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq is bound to spark more questions from Iraqi political leaders about whether the Trump administration is trying to use its military presence to further its agenda against Tehran.
The two senior U.S. officials said new intelligence raised concerns about the Revolutionary Guards and their activities in Iraq. The group is an arm of the Iranian military that has helped train Shiite Arab militias in Iraq.
An elite unit of the Iranian guards, the Quds Force, has been particularly active in helping the militias and the Shiite-led Iraqi government fight the Islamic State group, a Sunni extremist group that the U.S. military is also fighting.
Last month, the Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. The move imposes economic penalties and travel restrictions on members of the group, a unit of Iran’s military, and anyone else who deals with it. The terrorist designation was the first time the United States had made that move against a part of another nation’s government.
Although Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed hard for the designation, defense and intelligence officials opposed it out of concern Iran would take reciprocal action against U.S. military personnel and intelligence operatives or launch attacks.
On April 30, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran signed a bill into law that declared all U.S. troops in the Middle East terrorists and labeled the U.S. government a state sponsor of terrorism.
Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noted that the Trump administration has yet to put forward any clear evidence to support claims that Iran is planning a new attack on U.S. forces in the region. He pointed to a heightened level of tension that always seems to exist between the United States and Iran in the region, but which has worsened since the Trump administration named the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization and imposed additional sanctions.
“In the absence of some solid evidence about what triggered this action, it feels like the U.S. is picking and choosing what it considers a threat,” Nasr said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave a stern warning Monday morning about the militias and the Revolutionary Guards.
“We will not distinguish between attacks from Shia militias in #Iraq and the #IRGC that controls them,” he wrote on Twitter. “Any attack by these groups against U.S. forces will be considered an attack by #Iran & responded to accordingly.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Sunday night during a flight to Finland of signs of growing threat from the Iranians.
“It is absolutely the case that we’ve seen escalatory action from the Iranians and it is equally the case that we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests,” he said. “The fact that those actions take place, if they do, by some third-party proxy, whether that’s a Shia militia group or the Houthis or Hezbollah, we will hold the Iranians — Iranian leadership — directly accountable for that.”
A Defense Department official said the request to redirect the carrier group to the region originated Sunday from Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the new head of U.S. Central Command, after he viewed new intelligence that showed a change in behavior that could be interpreted to foreshadow an attack on U.S. forces or interests.
Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Sunday signed off on the carrier deployment and administration officials determined that the announcement should come from the White House, the official said.
But memories of the Iraq War and Bolton’s own long history of harsh rhetoric on Iran have left administration officials under pressure to lay out evidence of the imminent threat. Defense officials say that the Pentagon was expected to say more Monday, but it was unclear whether any administration officials will be specific about the threat.
The Trump administration has criticized Iran for its support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and military group, and of the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group in Yemen.
Last month, Republican and Democratic senators asked Pompeo whether the administration would explicitly seek congressional approval before trying to enter a war with Iran. Pompeo demurred, saying lawyers should answer that question.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., insisted that the United States could not attack Iran as part of a war authorization allowing the use of military force against al-Qaida and other extremist groups deemed responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.