(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump ordered more troops to the Middle East as the Pentagon blamed Tehran for recent attacks in the region, yet the small scale of the U.S. move signaled a desire to avoid a further escalation of tensions between the two nations.
The U.S. will bolster forces in the region by about 1,500 troops, though Trump and the Pentagon said that the deployment is for defensive purposes with a focus on missile defense, surveillance and keeping open shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. About 600 of the troops are already in the region, meaning fewer than 1,000 new service members will deploy.
“We’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops to the Middle East,” Trump said as he departed the White House on Friday for Japan. The troops will serve “mostly in a protective capacity,” Trump said, adding, “We’ll see what happens.”
After tensions between Iran and Washington spiked earlier this month, Trump’s comments and the size of the deployment suggest the administration wants to avoid fueling fears of another Middle East war. At the same time, Pentagon officials said they believe Iran is behind a spate of recent attacks on oil tankers, a Saudi oil pipeline and the “Green Zone” diplomatic compound in Baghdad.
Read More: Trump Bypasses Congress Over Saudi Arms, Sparking Ire
“We believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest levels,” U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Defense Department’s Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. All of the attacks “have been attributed to Iran, through their proxies” or other forces, Gilday said. It was the first time the U.S. publicly charged Iran with being behind the attacks, though Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen had claimed responsibility for the pipeline attack.
The moves come after the Trump administration said it had evidence Iran was threatening other attacks on American interests or allies in the region. The administration earlier this month expedited the deployment of a carrier battle group to the Middle East along with a Patriot missile battery and additional bombers.
It wasn’t immediately clear where in the region the new troops would be sent, though the U.S. has military bases in places including Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq. The deployment also includes a new fighter squadron and spy planes, Gilday said.
“All those troops, all of those weapons have been going to Iran the last three weeks not to take military action against Iran, but to deter Iran from taking military action against us,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
While people familiar with the troop decision called the deployment “initial,” it falls far short of Trump’s statement that in the event of hostilities with Iran he would be willing to send many times more than 120,000 troops suggested in a New York Times report last week. The president has also repeatedly signaled in recent weeks that he is open to talks with Iran’s leadership, though he’s suggested officials in Tehran need to reach out to him first.
On Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Pentagon was focused on having “the right force protection” in the region.
“Our job is deterrence. This is not about war,” Shanahan told reporters. “We have a mission there in the Middle East: freedom of navigation, you know, counterterrorism in Syria and Iraq, you know, defeating al-Qaeda in Yemen, and then the security of Israel and Jordan.”
Separately, the Trump administration decided to bypass Congress and approve the sale of more than $2 billion in weapons to Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, invoking a rarely used provision in the Arms Export Control Act despite bipartisan objections by lawmakers.
In a letter explaining the decision to allow sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Iran’s “malign activities” in the region necessitated the decision to sidestep congressional approval. He said he weapons sales “must occur as quickly as possible in order to deter further Iranian adventurism in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East.”
More broadly, the rising tensions are linked to Trump’s decision to ratchet up pressure by ordering punishing new economic sanctions on Iran after withdrawing America last year from the multinational nuclear deal reached with Tehran in 2015. The agreement, which sought to ease sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for an end to Iran’s nuclear program, is still backed by European allies as well as China and Russia.
In a sign of frustration over the effectiveness of the U.S. sanctions, Iran is now threatening to resume enriching uranium beyond levels permitted in the 2015 accord in its effort to push France, Germany, the U.K. and the European Union to find ways to relieve the effects of U.S. sanctions.
‘Who’s Provoking Who?’
As both sides sought to react in recent weeks, questions have been raised about the escalating threats. Senator Angus King, a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committee, asked on CNN this month, “Who’s provoking who?”
“Are they reacting because they are concerned about what we’re doing, or are we reacting because we’re concerned what they’re doing?” asked King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “And that raises my second concern, which is miscalculation.”
Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, warned on Thursday that there is “significant” potential for an overreaction by Iranian personnel or militia in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to the U.S.’s new military deployments.
Risk of Miscalculation
“The dangers are extreme in terms of miscalculation,” Reed said in an interview.
The Rhode Island senator declined to discuss the Pentagon threat briefing he’s received on the Iran situation but said he was “absolutely” concerned about miscalculation by Iran in reacting to the U.S. moves.
Asked about the Trump administration’s decision earlier this month to accelerate the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier battle group and other military hardware to the region, Reed said “if it’s a deterrence I think that’s appropriate because we don’t want to see an outbreak of conflict there.”
“We did not want to signal to the Iranians, erroneously, that we were not prepared,” he said.
--With assistance from Alyza Sebenius, Josh Wingrove, Terrence Dopp and Nick Wadhams.
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