US President Donald Trump is sending an additional 1,500 US troops to the Middle East as part of a “mostly protective” effort to deter Iranian threats, he said.
Many of the new forces will be engineers to support Patriot missile batteries and reconnaissance aircraft that are being newly deployed, a US official and a source familiar with the plan tells CNN.
It was reported earlier on Friday that Trump had given his approval to acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to deploy additional military resources to the Middle East to provide further deterrence against what the Pentagon believes is a rising Iranian threat against US troops in the region.
“We want to have protection,” Trump said, speaking to reporters Friday at the White House. “The Middle East, we’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops – mostly protective. Some very talented people are going to the Middle East right now and we’ll see what happens.”
Asked how many troops, he said: “It’ll be about 1,500 people.”
“I don’t think Iran wants to fight,” Trump added, “and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us.”
Shortly after Trump’s remarks, the Pentagon announced that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for attacks on four tankers at a port in the United Arab Emirates.
Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that “the Iranians have said publicly they were going to do things. We learned through intelligence reporting they have acted upon those threats and they have actually attacked.”
The Trump administration has also notified lawmakers that it is using a pre-existing rule that allows it to bypass Congress in order to expedite arms sales to allies in the region.
The weapons sales, intended to push back on Iran’s “malign activities,” according to the administration, are worth $8.1 billion, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
“These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement Friday.
The deployment and arms sales signal an intensified push against Tehran that is likely to raise concerns on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have questioned the administration’s threat assessment about Iran and have expressed concern that the US military build-up could lead to an accidental confrontation.
Shanahan and other administration officials have said the administration’s focus is on deterrence and the protection of US forces in the region.
But senior military commanders already are talking privately about further troop level increases.
The deployment of the 1,500 did not give Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, all of the forces he originally wanted to put into the region as a hedge against Iran, according to three US officials directly familiar with plans.
What was approved was essentially a package of emergency capabilities to deal with force protection.
Now a key question for the Pentagon is whether additional troops and capabilities will be sent, or whether there will be halt after this initial phase. “If additional assets or capabilities are needed to ensure” troop protection, Katie Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told reporters. “We will evaluate that at the time, based on the threat stream we see, but this is based on the specifics as we see it today.”
Shanahan acknowledged the dangers of some deployments in a Friday morning address at the US Naval Academy Commencement ceremony, saying “in my capacity, the most difficult decision is authorizing a mission that I know puts the men and women of our Armed forces in harm’s way. I will continue to give those orders, but only when absolutely necessary.”
The US has yet to publicly provide any evidence that shows increased Iranian threats.