Donald Trump yesterday suggested he is ready to send “a hell of a lot” of troops to confront Iran in the Middle East amid warnings that the two countries are stumbling towards a war.
The comments come amid mounting diplomatic and military tensions in the Persian Gulf after Iran-aligned Yemeni rebels attacked an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia and an unidentified attacker attempted to sabotage tankers.
Mr Trump said reports that the Pentagon has already drawn up plans to deploy 120,000 soldiers to the region in preparation for conflict were “fake news.”
But he added: “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that,” he said.
“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,” he said.
Tensions between Washington and Iran have spiralled since last week, when the US accused Iran of preparing to attack US interests in the Middle East and said it was sending an aircraft carrier and a task force of B-52 bombers to the region in response.
Iran then said it would resume enriching high-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon unless the world finds a way to ease the impact of US sanctions that have devastated its economy.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Pentagon officials had drawn up a plan to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter military attacks.
Iran’s president earlier said he would not bow to US pressure and warned that Iran is “too great to be intimidated by anyone.”
“God willing we will pass this difficult period with glory and our heads held high, and defeat the enemy,” Hassan Rouhani said at a meeting with Sunni clerics.
On Monday four ships were damaged by “sabotage attacks” near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The United States and its allies have refrained from publicly blaming Iran for the incident, but officials in Washington have briefed reporters that national security agencies believe Iran or Iranian proxies were responsible. Iran has denied all such claims.
On Tuesday Khalid al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said state owned oil firm Aramco had “temporarily shut down” the East-West pipeline after two pumping stations were targeted. Oil production and exports were not interrupted.
Mohammed Abdusalam, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels, wrote on Twitter that the attacks were “a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide” against the Yemeni people.
The US has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” including trying to prevent third countries buying Iranian oil since Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 deal designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in May 2018.
Iran has said it cannot remain bound by a one-sided agreement and has given the other signatories - the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union - sixty days to find a way to allow it to continue to sell oil and receive the revenues from such sales.
The Trump administration's policy has caused a rift between the United States and European signatories to the agreement, including Britain. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has warned that the US and Iran could stumble into armed conflict.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, on Tuesday said US officials “fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran” but said there was an increased risk of attack from Iranian allies across the region.
Speaking at a press conference with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, he said: "we’ve made clear to the Iranian that if US interests are attacked we will respond in an appropriate fashion."
But a senior British general on Tuesday claimed there was little reason to believe Iran posed a greater threat in key areas of the Middle East.
“No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika told reporters at the Pentagon in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad. “We’re aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them, along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in.”
Mr Pompeo was speaking after a meeting with Mr Lavrov and Vladimir Putin. He admitted there were major differences between Russia and the United States over Iran, Venezuela, and Ukraine.
Mr Lavrov said Russia supported a "diplomatic solution" to the confrontation and that he believed the US was ready to seek one.
Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, described the threat to renew uranium enrichment and heavy water production as an attempt to "save" the 2015 nuclear deal by signalling that immediate action is needed to preserve it.
He said Iran did not want a war but warned an armed conflict would be “devastating” for both the United States and the region.
“If people in the White House or the region want to drag the US into a conflict they should take this very seriously,” he said. “We are fully prepared for any eventuality.”