Allies Brush Off U.S. Warnings About Iran As Legislators Spar Over Threat Intel (Updated)
Close allies appear to be very skeptical of U.S. intel on pending Iranian aggression while public evidence remains totally elusive.
The U.S. State Department has told all non-essential personnel to leave Iraq based on still largely unspecified intelligence showing that Iran and its proxies could be preparing to attack American interests in the country and elsewhere across The Middle East. This comes as more evidence has emerged that the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as other European allies, are in disagreement about the exact extent and nature of these threats. There are also growing calls from members of Congress for greater clarity about the Administration's claims.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered the withdrawal early on May 15, 2019. The U.S. Embassy in Iraq subsequently said that it had confidence that Iraqi security forces could provide protection, but said that the nature of the apparent threats still made it too risky for non-essential personnel to remain in place. Pompeo had made a surprise visit to Iraq to discuss the situation with officials from that country on May 7, 2019, and, less than a week later, the American Embassy issued a travel warning advising American nationals to stay away.
"We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran," Pompeo had said on May 14, 2019, after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Russia. "We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion."
Tensions between the United States and Iran have been building at an extremely fast pace since May 6, 2019, when U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton first announced the deployment of B-52 bombers and the expedited movement of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and her associated strike group to the Persian Gulf in response to intelligence showing Iran and Iranian backed forces might be positioning themselves for an attack on American interests, or those of its allies, in the region.
To date, various U.S. government officials and members of Congress have described these threats as "clear" and "imminent," but there remains virtually no publicly available evidence to support these claims. On May 13, 2019, the United States reportedly made an initial assessment that four oil tankers that had suffered damage off the coast of the United Arab Emirates had been victims of Iranian or Iranian-supported sabotage attacks, but again, provided no specifics on how they arrived at that conclusion.
The next day, British Army Major General Christopher Ghika, presently deputy commander of the American-led coalition that continues to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria, offered a dramatically different take. He told reporters via videolink from Baghdad that there was no increase in the threat from Iranian-backed forces in either of those countries and seemed to suggest that there had been no change in the force protection posture for coalition personnel.
"No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria," Ghika said. "We’re aware of that presence [Iranian-backed militias], clearly. And we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in. We are monitoring the Shia militia groups. I think you’re referring to carefully and if the threat level seems to go up then we’ll raise our force protection measures accordingly."
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command was quick to contradict Ghika. "OIR [Operation Inherent Resolve] is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq," U.S. Navy Captain Bill Urban said in a statement.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense has since issued its own response, which notably does not say that Ghika misspoke, but does seem to imply that he might not have a complete picture of regional threats. The statement also does not say whether or not the U.K. government shares the U.S. assessment that there are any increased threats from Iran or Iranian proxies. The United Kingdom, as well as other European countries, had already appeared largely unconvinced by the information they had received from Secretary Pompeo during a short-notice meeting with them in Brussels on the growing tensions with Iran on May 13, 2019.
Ghika "made clear in his Pentagon briefing that 'there are a range of threats to American and coalition forces in this part of the world. There always have been, that is why we have a very robust range of force protection measures,'" the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in its statement on May 15, 2019. "The U.K. has long been clear about our concerns over Iran's destabilizing behavior in the region."
On May 15, 2019, Germany and the Netherlands said that they were temporarily suspending their military assistance programs with the government of Iraq, citing unspecified security concerns. German authorities, however, specifically said that they had seen no indications themselves about any potential imminent threats from Iranian or Iranian-backed forces and that their training activities could resume as normal within days, according to Reuters.
Two days earlier, Spain also announced that the Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate ESPS Méndez Núñez, which had been sailing with the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, would not accompany those ships into the Persian Gulf. Spanish authorities have been insistent that this is a purely "technical" decision based on the U.S. government's decision to alter Lincoln's deployment schedule and say the ship will rejoin the carrier when it exits the Gulf. However, there have been reports citing unnamed officials that Madrid was worried about getting caught up in a potential conflict between the United States and Iran.
None of this is to say that Iran and its proxies do not pose a potential threat to American interests in the region or that those same forces have not attacked U.S. personnel and those of its allies over the years. Just on May 14, 2019, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked oil facilities in neighboring Saudi Arabia using Qasef-1 suicide drones, a weapon system that you can read about more here. The Houthis have either obtained these unmanned aircraft straight from Iranian sources or have built them using parts they have received from Iran. The attacks prompted the Saudis to stop the flow of oil through its main cross-country pipeline, but regular operations have now resumed.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have also been very visibly growing over the former's decision to withdraw from the controversial deal over Iran's nuclear program, which has subsequently imperiled that international agreement and led to Iranian threats to restart uranium enrichment efforts that could put it closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon, despite Tehran's insistence that it is not interested in or planning to do so. The U.S. government has also now adopted a position of "maximum pressure" against the Iranian regime with all-new sanctions and a decision to designate the country's powerful quasi-military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. Iran responded by declaring all U.S. forces in the Middle East to be terrorists, though that act appears to have been almost entirely symbolic.
But the question remains as to whether any movements the U.S. or its allies have observed Iran or its proxies making in the region reflect an increased threat or a particularly imminent one to U.S. military forces or American nationals. Despite reports suggesting that the latest Houthi attack showed a "new level of sophistication," the Houthis have been using the Qasef-1 since at least 2017 and employed them in attacks on targets inside Saudi Arabia for what appeared to be the first time more than a year ago.
Beyond that, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an active and brutal conflict with the Houthis, which have seen the rebels also short-range ballistic missiles that they apparently obtained from Iran or fabricated with Iranian assistance at Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh. In addition, since the weekend, the Houthis have been withdrawing from a number of port cities as planned in accordance with a U.N.-brokered peace deal.
Without any additional information, it is similarly difficult to assess the claims of increased threats to Americans in Iraq, especially, as compared to long-standing security concerns in that country. In September 2018, in the middle of protests in the city of Basra against the government in Baghdad, there were small scale rocket attacks against both the U.S. Embassy and the American consulate in Basra. The U.S. government blamed those incidents on Iranian-backed militias, as well, and shuttered the Basra Consulate.
All told, the narrative over what exactly the situation is regarding threats from Iran has only grown more confusing and conflicting over the past week or so, and this has even extended to statements from anonymous sources. Unnamed U.S. military officials described the intelligence the United States had received as "sobering and say they believe that Iran is actively planning attacks on U.S. forces," according to a story from The Washington Post on May 14, 2019. But that same day, The New York Times reported another unnamed U.S. government official as saying the potential threats were "'small stuff' and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr. Bolton."
Bolton had reportedly ordered a review of U.S. military contingency plans regarding Iran last week, with at least one option involving the deployment of a force of 120,000 U.S. personnel to the Middle East to support a series of "bloody nose" stand-off air and missile strikes against Iranian targets. Those same forces could also potentially provide an advance echelon ahead of an actual ground intervention into Iran.
President Donald Trump has notably dismissed these reports as "fake news" and offered a diplomatic olive branch to Iran earlier in the week, which Iranian officials promptly rejected. He has also implied that the United States could respond forcefully to any Iranian provocations.
"Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that," Trump told reporters on May 14, 2019, when asked about the possibility that he could possibly send the force of 120,000 personnel to the Middle East. "Hopefully we're not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that."
There seems to be a growing dispute about how to potentially proceed within Congress, as well. Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, Republicans from Arkansas and Florida respectively, have publicly advocated for a forceful response to any Iranian threats in recent days. "There have been a number of credible threats from Iran, and we've got to be prepared to protect our people," Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said after leaving a classified briefing for a small number of Senators on the decision to pull non-essential diplomatic staff from Iraq.
On the other side, Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has called for more details on the intelligence the administration has about the situation in the Middle East, as has Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. Others, including independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have accused the Trump Administration of inflating or misrepresenting the nature of the threats.
"There's an alarming lack of clarity here. There's a lack of strategy and there's a lack of consultation," Schumer told reporters on May 15, 2019. "The president ought to come up with a strategy and make it clear to Congress."
“We still do not have that scheduled. They still haven’t given us a schedule,” Pelosi said that same day, referring to reported requests made eight days ago for a classified briefing open to all members of the House of Representatives on the situation regarding Iran. "In many ways they are trying to deter us from having our role,” she added. The Trump Administration now says it will provide this broader briefing tomorrow.
For the moment, though, the Trump Administration certainly hasn't begun deploying anywhere near even 120,000 personnel to the Middle East in response to the reported increased threats from Iran. But at the same time, the drumbeats of war are certainly growing, despite a general lack of information, and there is only a growing risk that any miscalculation on either side could turn into a major conflict.
UPDATE: 4:00pm EST—
U.S. State Department officials speaking on the condition of anonymity have said that the decision to pull non-essential personnel out of Iraq was based on indications of "multiple threat streams directly linked to Iran" and "increased intelligence reporting" since Secretary Pompeo's visit to the country last week. However, those same individuals reportedly stressed that this did not mean the threats were any more credible or imminent than they had been previously. There is still essentially no details about what the threats themselves, which have now been "imminent" for more than a week.
Republic Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a prominent supporter of the Trump Administration, has also now joined the growing number of legislators asking for greater clarity on the overall situation. "I would urge the State Dept. and DoD to come down here and explain to us what's going on," he told reporters. "We need to understand what we're doing."
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