Iran warns of 'threat' as US boosts troop presence
TEHRAN - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Saturday a US decision to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East is a "threat to international peace," state media reported.
"Increased US presence in our region is very dangerous and a threat to international peace and security and must be confronted," Zarif told the official IRNA news agency before heading home from a visit to Pakistan.
The move also comes as the Trump administration is planning to bypass congressional restrictions to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a close US ally and Iran's arch-enemy in the region which is currently leading a war against Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen.
"This is a prudent response to credible threats from Iran," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Friday.
President Donald Trump, who approved the deployment, called it "protective."
"We want to have protection in the Middle East," Trump told reporters as he prepared to set off on a trip to Japan.
"We're going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective," Trump added. "It'll be about 1,500 people."
Washington says the reinforcements, which come after the deployment earlier this month of an aircraft carrier task force, B-52 bombers, an amphibious assault ship and a missile defence system, are in response to a "campaign" of recent attacks approved by Iran's top leadership.
Those include a rocket launched into the Green Zone in Baghdad, explosive devices that damaged four tankers near the entrance to the Gulf, and a drone attack by Yemeni rebels on a key Saudi oil pipeline.
Iran has denied involvement in any of the attacks.
"Americans make such claims to justify their hostile policies and to create tension in the Persian Gulf," Zarif said.
Meanwhile a senior Iranian military official was quoted as saying by the semi-official news agency Mizan on Saturday that Iran can sink any US warships sent to the Gulf region using missiles and "secret weapons".
"America.. is sending two warships to the region. If they commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons," General Morteza Qorbani, an adviser to Iran's military command, told Mizan.
'Dangerous and escalatory'
The initial threat from Iran came at the beginning of May, according to Rear Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
The US caught the IRGC attempting to covertly deploy "modified dhows capable of launching cruise missiles," he said, referring to small traditional boats.
"We view this as a campaign," Gilday told reporters.
The moves "are all part of a dangerous and escalatory strategy by Iran to threaten global trade and to destabilize the region."
"We believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest levels, and that all of the attacks... have been attributed to Iran through their proxies or their forces," Gilday said, citing still-secret US intelligence.
US officials said the aim of the deployment was both to extend greater protection to the 70,000 US forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and to deliver a message to Iran to refrain from attacks.
"We think that through a combination of a very measured deployment of assets as well as public messaging, we are again trying to underscore that we are not seeking hostilities with Iran," he said.
Gilday said the US moves have had some impact. When Washington first learned of Tehran's alleged intent to launch attacks, it delivered a stern warning to Tehran "within hours" through an unnamed third party.
Since then, the threat of the missile-bearing dhows appears to have subsided.
The United States this month ended the last exemptions it had granted from sweeping unilateral sanctions it reimposed after abandoning a landmark 2015 nuclear between major powers and Iran in May last year.
The move dealt a heavy new blow to Iran's already reeling economy as even vocal critics of the renewed sanctions, like Turkey, announced they had stopped buying Iranian oil.
Iran has appealed repeatedly to the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal -- Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- to rescue it from renewed US sanctions, so far to little avail.
Britain, France and Germany launched a special payment system, called INSTEX -- the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges -- in late January to enable Iran to keep trading with European companies.
But in March Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed the mechanism as a "bitter joke".
Earlier this month, on the first anniversary of Washington's withdrawal from the agreement, Tehran announced it was rolling back some of the limits on its nuclear activities it had agreed under the deal.
It threatened to suspend more if there was no action from the major powers within 60 days on honouring their own commitments to sanctions relief.
The European powers denounced Iran's threat to resume nuclear work but urged the US not to further escalate tensions with a military build-up.
The successive US deployments have raised concerns, even among governments close to Washington, that brinkmanship with Tehran could lead to a dangerous miscalculation.
The Trump administration also continues to draw criticism at home that it has not clearly shown the need for an escalation in the standoff with Iran.
Members of Congress were also angered that Trump was overriding their block on delivery of lethal weapons to Saudi Arabia.
"More tactics with absolutely no strategy," tweeted Democratic Senator Chris Murphy.
"All that is happening now is escalatory move after escalatory move. Trump has ZERO plan for how this ends, and that should scare the hell out of everyone."
But Pentagon officials stressed that the US does not seek war with Iran.
"We do not see these additional capabilities as encouraging hostilities. We see them as defensive in nature," said acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Katie Wheelbarger.
"Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses the range of their destabilizing behavior in the region."
The Gulf sultanate of Oman, which has acted as a broker between Iran and the United States in the past, said it was trying reduce tensions, following a visit to Tehran this week by state minister for foreign affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.
On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi announced that he was sending delegations to the US and Iran in an attempt to ease tensions between the two countries, which are both key Baghdad allies.
Tehran has refused to hold talks with Washington "under any circumstances" if the rights of the Islamic republic are not respected.
"We have said clearly... as long as the rights of our nation are not satisfied, as long as words don't change into action, our path will stay the same as now," Supreme National Security Council spokesman Keyvan Khosravi said on Thursday.