CAPITOL HILL — U.S. President Donald Trump says there is “no infighting whatsoever” about his Middle East policies and that as tensions with Iran continue, he is “sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”
Trump responded to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times about clashing opinions between those in his administration who see Iran taking clear steps in preparation to attack U.S. forces, and other officials, including some from European allies, who argue the Iranian moves are defensive precautions in response to U.S. actions toward Iran.
“Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision,” Trump tweeted. “All sides, views, and policies are covered.”
Trump decided last year to withdraw from an international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and applied fresh actions to cut off Iran’s oil and banking sectors in an attempt to alter the Iranian government’s behavior.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that “the escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncomfortable,” and that despite the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran is exercising “maximum restraint.”
Embassy staff pared
The United States has ordered its non-essential employees to leave the country’s embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and its consulate in Irbil as the Trump administration warned of threats against American forces in the Middle East from Iran or Iranian-backed proxies.
The move sparked sharp reactions on Capitol Hill.
“There are only two reasons for ordering their departure: we have credible intelligence that our people are at risk or in preparation for military action in Iran,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said. “The Trump administration has not provided any information to this committee on the intelligence behind their decisions or what they plan to do in Iraq or Iran.”
Menendez demanded the officials bring panel members up to date on “any plans to go to war with Iran.”
Committee chairman, Idaho Republican James Risch, said he, personally, has been briefed on the unfolding situation in the Middle East and said a briefing of the full U.S. Senate was “in the works.”
The United States is not alone in curtailing activities in Iraq. Germany and the Netherlands say they are suspending military training operations in the country, although Berlin said it had no signals of its own that a threat against Western interests in Iraq was imminent. The Dutch government cited an unspecified security threat in curtailing its training operations.
Troops to Iran?
Trump has rejected a report that he is considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran but didn’t rule out deploying “a lot more” soldiers in the future.
“I think it’s fake news,” Trump said of The New York Times report. “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that.”
The Pentagon has dispatched an aircraft carrier and nuclear-capable bomber planes to the region in the past few days, with a Patriot missile battery and a landing platform dock ship on the way. The Patriot system offers protection from aircraft and missiles, while the LPD carries Marines and the aircraft, hovercraft or boats needed to put them ashore to fight in distant places.
But a major U.S. ally in the region, the United Arab Emirates, says it will show “restraint” in the face of Iranian aggression.
The United States suspects Iran was behind the sabotage of four foreign vessels Sunday off the UAE coast. Two Saudi oil tankers were among those damaged.
“We need to emphasize caution and good judgment,” UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash said Wednesday. “It is easy to throw accusations, but it is a difficult situation. There are serious issues and among them is Iranian behavior.”
He said the UAE will not publicly speculate who was behind the sabotage while the investigation is under way.
Meanwhile, a senior British officer in the U.S.-led military coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria said Tuesday he has not seen an increased threat to his troops by Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.
Major General Chris Ghika’s statement to reporters contradicts the Trump administration, which has asserted for more than a week that it has detected potential Iranian threats against U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Such assertions face increasingly rigorous scrutiny from lawmakers.
“This seems like an escalation with no endgame,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said, describing the pressure campaign on Tehran as “ham-handed.”