By Edward Carney
In the midst of escalating tensions between Iran and the United States, Western media was filled with inconsistent and sometimes contradictory reports on Thursday regarding Washington’s further plans for containing threats from the Islamic Republic.
The Washington Examiner quoted acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan as saying that the Pentagon is currently reviewing its “force projection” strategy. He noted that this “may involve sending additional troops” to the region, but he persistently denied the veracity of reports that cited specific figures. Some of those reports indicated that the Pentagon had briefed the White House on a plan to deploy 5,000 personnel, while others put the number at 10,000. Shanahan explicitly denied the existence of both plans.
Yet both figures pale in comparison to that cited by the New York Times last week. Its reporting relied upon unnamed Defense officials in order to advance the claim that a plan had been discussed with the White House entailing the deployment of a staggering 120,000 troops. As Business Insider noted on Thursday, President Donald Trump rejected that report as “fake news,” but injected further ambiguity into the matter by stating that if the Islamic Republic started a war, the resulting American deployment would be much larger.
The same Business Insider article suggests that there is at least as much uncertainty surrounding the nature of the current Iranian threat as surrounds the magnitude of the prospective response from the US. The article’s headline refers to that threat as “mysterious,” and it goes on to accuse the Pentagon of failing to “publicly explain the threat” that justified the recent deployment of military resources to the Persian Gulf.
Earlier in May, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that an aircraft carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln had been dispatched to the vitally important waterway in response to then-unspecified intelligence regarding prospective attacks on US assets and allies by forces belonging to or operating on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was later revealed that the carrier group had already been scheduled to arrive in the Persian Gulf, although the Navy confirmed that this schedule was greatly accelerated in response to the intelligence and at the direction of the White House.
Separate from the Lincoln, a bomber task force was also dispatched to an unspecified location in the region. This further contributed to concerns about the potential for open conflict. But Bolton and the White House as a whole have continued to maintain that the purpose of the deployments is deterrence and that Tehran bears sole responsibility for any threat of war.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that position on Thursday, responding in an interview with Fox News to claims that the Trump administration had courted Iran’s escalation by imposing a series of new and expanded sanctions. “There’s a long history of Iranian terror that long predates our sanctions efforts,” he said. “So this isn’t just about our sanctions; this is about the nature of this theocratic regime.”
Pompeo also used the interview to affirm that the threats posed by that regime are real and that credible information has been provided to that effect. He pointed, for instance, to a briefing with members of Congress on Tuesday, and claimed that nearly every lawmaker who was present left the session with an understanding that the measures undertaken by the Trump administration “to deter those threats and protect our forces were wholly justified and reasonable.”
Reports of that briefing undermine the above claim by Business Insider regarding the “mysterious” nature of the Iranian threat and the supposed lack of public explanation. That article also fails to note that while initial references to the relevant intelligence were sparse, specific information has gradually been released in the roughly three weeks since the first announcement of deterrence measures by the US.
Since then, it has been made clear that the warning signs included satellite images showing the presence of missiles on small Iranian naval vessels, as well as public statements by Iranian paramilitary officials ordering proxy groups in Iraq and elsewhere to be prepared for conflict with US forces. The defense community in Washington quickly determined that the missiles in question could have been indicative of increased armament for those same proxy groups, or else could have been intended for use against maritime targets by the vessels carrying them.
But as Pompeo expressed in his Fox interview, these sorts of actions by the Islamic Republic are representative of a much larger underlying trend. And that trend was highlighted on Thursday in a separate Fox News report that included satellite images of a border crossing between Syria and Iraq. The report noted that the area in question is under the control of local militias with strong ties to the Islamic Republic. And the images purported show that Iran is engaged in an effort to develop that crossing and secure a conduit for the transportation of military equipment and oil exports that defy US sanctions.
Such efforts are in keeping with a long-recognized goal of the Iranian regime to create a far-reaching sphere of influence often described as a “Shiite Crescent” in the Arab-Muslim world. The conduit could help to unify Iran-backed militias across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and would no doubt be a serious challenge to Western interests in the region. Preventing this outcome is a recognizable aspect of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, and Secretary Pompeo has specified that an end to Iran’s regional meddling is one of the changes that must take place before the White House will even consider lifting sanctions.
Still, even in the midst of the current growth of tensions, the administration has maintained public confidence about the prospect for forcing these changes through economic and diplomatic pressures alone. And statements to this effect have continued to emerge even as Western news outlets allege that plans have been developed for the deployment of specific, though widely varying numbers of American troops.
Despite having previously stated that such deployments would exceed the highest figure cited in major media, President Trump said on Thursday that he doubts the US will need to send any more troops to the Middle East in order to confront Iranian threats. This is presumably because the president and his foreign policy principals still believe that the recently-expanded economic sanctions are having their intended effect.
Last month, the White House took the unprecedented step of designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – an official Iranian government institution – as a foreign terrorist organization. Almost immediately thereafter, it also announced that importers of Iranian oil would no longer receive sanctions waivers from the US Treasury and would be expected to look elsewhere for their energy needs. This took the markets by surprise, as many assumed that the White House would not be able to enforce such unforgiving sanctions without risking a spike in global oil prices.
Speaking to CNBC on Thursday, Secretary Pompeo boasted of the US government’s apparent ability to forestall such an undesirable outcome. He noted that contrary to expectations, Brent crude prices were actually lower than they had been at the same time last year, shortly after Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose petroleum sanctions. This situation is ostensibly attributable, at least in part, to the administration’s efforts to encourage increased production among regional allies such as Saudi Arabia. “We are confident that we’ve done the hard work to make sure that the market is well supplied,” Pompeo said, adding, “I hope that we can continue to maintain that, and I think that we can.”
Maintaining such pressure would mean further contributing to the conditions that have created, according to The Iran Project, a 34.2 percent increase in the rate of inflation in Iran over the past 12 months. More to the point, many supporters of the Trump administration’s strategy expect the economic sanctions to further exacerbate a broad-ranging political crisis in the Islamic Republic, which is partly characterized by rising levels of political infighting among regime officials.
On Thursday, the Associated Press highlighted that infighting by noting that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has criticized his country’s president and foreign minister by name for the first time. Although Khamenei wields ultimate authority over all policy matters and accordingly expressed his approval for the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers, he disavowed the negotiations in comments to “hard-line students gathered for a Ramadan lecture.”
The retroactive endorsement of a strictly anti-Western strategy underscores the ongoing development of tensions between Iran and the US. But it may also contribute to the vulnerability of a regime that is suffering from internal divisions and from the effects of domestic unpopularity and widespread public protest. The year 2018 was dubbed a “year full of uprisings” by the National Council of Resistance of Iran,” and a number of activist demonstrations called for a change of government in Tehran, but suggested that such change would come through domestic revolt and not international conflict.