WASHINGTON - The U.S. military is presenting options to President Donald Trump that would enhance the protection of U.S. forces in the Middle East in response to rising tensions with Iran, and potentially involve sending more troops to the region, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Thursday.
His comments came as U.S. military leaders were expected to present the White House with a proposal during a meeting Thursday afternoon to send thousands of additional troops to the Middle East for security reinforcement, according to U.S. officials.
“What we’re looking at is: Are there things that we can do to enhance force protection in the Middle East?” Shanahan said at the Pentagon ahead of a meeting with officials from Vietnam. He said those measures “may involve sending additional troops.”
The proposal from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, comes as the military seeks to address what officials have described as a spike in threats against U.S. forces, detected by U.S. intelligence streams, from Iran and its proxy groups. The military has already taken steps in recent weeks to boost its presence in the Middle East, the latest sign of mounting tensions between the Trump administration and Tehran.
It is not clear whether the briefing with Trump will result in an immediate decision. Shanahan said the meeting would involve updating the president on the security situation with Iran.
The acting defense secretary dismissed reports that the U.S. was preparing to send as many as 5,000 or 10,000 more forces to the region. “There is no 10,000 and there is no 5,000,” Shanahan said.
The Pentagon earlier this month dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, composed of about 7,500 military personnel, to the region as a show of force. The military also sent four B-52 heavy bombers, as well as a Patriot missile defense battery. Overall, the United States has about 60,000 to 80,000 troops across the Central Command area of operations, which includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states.
Shanahan said earlier this week that he believed the U.S. response had forced Iran to put its planned actions on hold and recalculate.
“There haven’t been any attacks on Americans,” Shanahan said. “I would consider that a hold. That doesn’t mean that the threats that we’ve previously identified have gone away.”
He added: “Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region.”
The increased friction comes a little more than a year after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Since then, the Trump administration has increasingly turned the screws on Tehran, designating Iran’s elite military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization in April. The administration also opted not to renew waivers that allowed countries to import Iranian oil despite sanctions, as Washington looks to drive Iranian oil sales to zero.
Iran, in turn, announced that it would stop complying with elements of the 2015 nuclear accord. Early this month, President Hassan Rouhani warned that if Iran failed to receive relief from sanctions, the nation would resume enriching uranium above the treaty limits within 60 days.
A number of additional incidents in the Middle East have been seen in Washington as a sign that Tehran is showing the harm it could do to U.S. interests in the region if the Trump administration continues its maximum pressure campaign.
Damage to U.A.E., Saudi and Norwegian ships in the Persian Gulf this month was seen by U.S. and Arab officials as an act of sabotage by Iran, as was a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Tehran has denied involvement in the incidents, but U.S. officials view them as Iranian handiwork, designed to warn Washington of the possible consequences of continued escalation.
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The rocket attack came days after the State Department announced it was ordering all “non-emergency U.S. government employees” to leave Iraq as a result of tensions with Iran. U.S. officials had warned of a threat against U.S. troops operating in Iraq by Iranian proxy forces in the nation.