New Tensions With Iran Threaten Nuclear Deal and, White House Says, U.S. Troops
WASHINGTON — Tensions escalated between the United States and Iran on Monday as the Trump administration accused Iran and militias that it backs of threatening American troops, and Iran signaled it might soon violate part of the 2015 nuclear deal it reached under former President Barack Obama.
European diplomats in touch with senior officials in Tehran said Iran would most likely resume research on high-performance centrifuges used to produce nuclear fuel and put restrictions on nuclear inspections in Iran. It would be Iran’s most significant reaction to date as President Trump has steadily increased sanctions.
At the same time, three United States officials cited new intelligence that Iran or its proxies were preparing to attack American troops in Iraq and Syria, leading the Pentagon to send an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf as a warning to Tehran.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to get Iran to behave like a normal nation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Finland.
The Trump administration has consistently sought to isolate Iran’s clerical government. One year ago, Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal that was brokered with world powers, and in the last month alone moved to cut off Iran’s remaining oil exports and designated an Iranian military unit as a terror organization.
Iran’s expected suspension of some elements of the nuclear deal appeared to be a response to the aggressive American policies, which were underscored by the announcement of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln heading to the Gulf.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran’s government has decided to enforce specific decisions to reciprocate,” reported Iran’s semiofficial news agency, Fars, on Monday, hinting at a coming response to the earlier American withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions against Iran.
The move toward suspending some elements of the nuclear deal — although without withdrawing from it — was reported by European officials who have urged Iranian officials to avoid being provoked into overstepping its limits and reuniting the Western allies against Tehran.
Under the 2015 deal, Iran shipped roughly 97 percent of its nuclear fuel stockpile out of the country, and experts do not believe it has enough on hand to produce a weapon. Ever since the United States withdrew from the agreement, Iran has sought to walk a fine line between abandoning the deal and continuing to sell its oil to foreign buyers to buoy its struggling economy.
But last month, the Trump administration announced it would no longer suspend economic penalties against eight nations that were continuing to buy Iranian oil, including China, Japan and India. And in an interview in New York 10 days ago, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said he was “under pressure every day” to abandon the deal, as Mr. Trump did.
By themselves, an acceleration of work on high-speed centrifuges and limits on international inspections would not necessarily take Iran closer to producing a weapon.
But Fars on Monday quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, the M.I.T.-educated head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and a key negotiator in the 2015 deal, as saying Tehran could disregard the limit “whenever we wish, and would do the enrichment at any volume and level.”
The sanctions on Iran’s oil exports were escalated two weeks after the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations — the first time that the designation was given to an arm of another nation’s government.
American intelligence and Defense Department officials had opposed the terror designation, concerned that Iran would similarly target or attack American troops and intelligence operatives in the region. Last week, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran declared all American forces in the Middle East as terrorists and labeled the United States government a state sponsor of terrorism.
Three senior American officials said new intelligence that surfaced over the weekend raised concerns about the Revolutionary Guards and their activities in Iraq, where they have helped train Shiite Arab militias. The officials would not provide specific details about the threat posed by Iranian forces or Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Tehran’s military.
On Monday afternoon, a Pentagon statement cited “heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests.” A spokesman, Charles E. Summers, said the carrier deployment “ensures we have the forces” in the region to “defend” American troops and interests. He added: “We do not seek war with the Iranian regime.”
John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said in a statement on Sunday night that deploying the aircraft carrier and fighter jets to the Persian Gulf was intended to warn Iran that the United States would respond forcibly to any aggression against American forces or interests in the region. Additionally, one official noted new concerns in waterways where Iranian maritime forces operate.
But memories of the Iraq war and Mr. Bolton’s own long history of harsh rhetoric on Iran have left administration officials under pressure to produce evidence of the imminent threat. By late Monday, no one in the Trump administration had stepped forward to make a specific case.
Earlier this year, Mr. Trump notably backed up assertions by Mr. Bolton that the 5,200 American troops currently in Iraq should stay there to “watch Iran.” Iraqi leaders quickly pushed back, saying they feared that the United States was trying to use its troop presence in Iraq to further its own goals of isolating Iran.
Mr. Trump at the time harked back to his brief visit in December to see American troops at Al-Asad base in western Iraq and suggested that United States forces there could be used to carry out surveillance on Iran.
Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noted that the Trump administration had yet to back up its claims that Iran is planning a new attack on American forces in the region. He pointed to a heightened but long-existing level of tension between the United States and Iran that had worsened since the Trump administration’s recent policy decisions.
“In the absence of some solid evidence about what triggered this action, it feels like the U.S. is picking and choosing what it considers a threat,” Mr. Nasr said.
There have been few, if any, specific threats over the last couple of years against American troops in Iraq from armed groups known as Popular Mobilization Forces, some of which are linked to Iran.
There are some 30 armed groups in Iraq that are now part of the Iraqi security forces. Most of them were formed to help fight the Islamic State when the Iraqi Army collapsed in 2014, and some were trained and armed by Iran.
Only a handful are ideologically close to the Iranian government. However, those that are do rail against the United States and its activities in the Middle East.
“We will not take off the clothes of war until we have cut off the head of the snake America, the factory and source of terrorism,” Akram Abbas al-Kaabi, the leader of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, said on Monday after Mr. Bolton’s statement. The armed Iraqi group, which is close to Iran, was recently added to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In Finland, where he was attending an annual meeting of the Arctic Council, Mr. Pompeo said the new, undisclosed warnings served “to make sure that those planned or contemplated attacks don’t take place and to make sure we have the right security posture.”
In response to the American military moves, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari of Iran said United States forces in the region “no longer enjoy calm.”
A Defense Department official said the request to redirect the aircraft carrier group to the region originated on Sunday from Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the new head of United States Central Command, after he viewed intelligence showing a change in behavior that could be interpreted to foreshadow an attack on American forces or interests.
The official said that the carrier group was headed to the Persian Gulf in the coming weeks as part of a routine tour but that General McKenzie’s request hastened the deployment from its current location in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan on Sunday signed off on the order, and administration officials determined that the announcement should come from the White House, the official said. But several Defense officials said that the new threat warning surfaced only in recent days; as late as last Friday, they said, they had not seen reason to change the American military’s posture in the region.