US says Gulf troop surge ‘defensive in nature’

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Article Summary
The Pentagon announced it will send additional US forces to the Middle East, but whether this is a smart defensive move or an unnecessary escalation of tensions with Iran remains to be seen.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will send an additional 900 US forces to the Middle East and extend the term of 600 more already deployed in the region, White House and Defense Department officials said today. The move is a part of force protection efforts meant to deter potential attacks by Iran or its proxies against US forces and partners in the region.

“We’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective,” President Donald Trump told journalists today as he left the White House to travel to Japan. “Some very talented people are going to the Middle East now and … we’ll see what happens. It’ll be about 1,500 people.”

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said he approved the request from CENTCOM combatant commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie to send the additional personnel, as well as a fighter aircraft squadron and additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft to the region as a “prudent defensive measure.” He also said he had authorized the deployment of a Patriot missile battery to the region, but it turns out it is already in the region and its time there is being extended.

“These capabilities are intended to enhance our defenses, harden our positions and provide additional [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] coverage to see the threat and be able to illuminate the threat more clearly,” acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Katie Wheelbarger told journalists at the Pentagon today.

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Pentagon officials stressed that the additional personnel and resources being sent to the region were defensive in nature, and that the Trump administration policy was to try to get Iran back to the negotiating table.

“We do not seek conflict with Iran,” Wheelbarger said. “We do not see the additional capabilities as encouraging hostilities. We see them as defensive in nature.”

“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,” Wheelbarger said. “That being said, the secretary is committed to ensuring the protection of our forces in the region.”

Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US military in recent weeks had seen rhetorical threats by Iranian leaders to close the Strait of Hormuz be backed up by a more threatening posture and actions he attributed to both Iranian-backed proxies and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“In the recent past, Iranian leaders have publicly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz,” Gilday told journalists at the Pentagon briefing. “They have backed up those threats with actions, posturing their forces in an effort to intimidate the movement of international trade and global energy sources."

“Recent actions by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps … are all part of a dangerous and escalatory strategy by Iran to threaten global trade and to destabilize the region,” Gilday said.

“While we do not seek conflict with Iran, we are determined to protect our forces and interests in the region from attack,” he said.

Gilday said that, upon learning of alleged threat intelligence in early May, the United States sent a message to Iranian leaders via a third country, warning them that it would hold them responsible for any attack. He subsequently declined to identify the country through which the US warning was sent to Iran.

“As you probably know, upon first learning that information on the third of May, it was within hours that a warning was issued through a third party to the Iranian leadership that we knew of this planning and that we hold them responsible for any attacks that occurred," Gilday said. "We followed that up, after we confirmed the Iranians received that message, with a diverting of the [Abraham Lincoln] carrier strike group, the [B-52] bombers and the Patriot battery to theater. And we made a public announcement that we did that. This was done to make it clear to Iran that we were not trying to provoke anything but we were responding to very clear signaling from them that they were threatening us.”

The deployments announced today seem largely about signaling, and could also reflect an effort by the new CENTCOM commander to build up resources and assets, said former senior Pentagon official Kathleen Hicks.

“The big question is what are these conventional force improvements going to do against that kind of [asymmetrical] threat,” which Iran and its proxies pose, Hicks, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al-Monitor. “My only answer is that it is a piece of signaling, at best, theater at worst, portraying this as a more conventional US Iranian force-on-force problem.”

“No combatant commander wants to be in a tertiary theater,” Hicks continued. “In a weird way, the best of all possible worlds is don’t go into combat, but get additional forces for CENTCOM.”

“I think it is clear from public reporting that Trump is the one hitting the brakes,” Hicks said.

The force protection measures announced today seem reasonable if the messaging is clear to the Iranians that they are defensive in nature and not a prelude to a wider, potentially offensive buildup in the region, said Colin Kahl, a former senior Pentagon policy official and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

“It appears mostly to be for force protection in response to the US perception of a heightened threat level from Iran,” Kahl, now at Stanford University, told Al-Monitor. “It is also likely a deterrence message to Tehran. All of that makes sense. But it doesn’t rule out the possibility that Iran misreads the intention of the deployments, and tensions continue to rise."

“The challenge here is that each side may see themselves acting defensively while the other side views those same actions as offensive in nature and threatening,” Kahl said. “Stable deterrence is hard in an environment of deep mistrust, mutual fear, a long history of misunderstanding, a constant stream of threats, mixed messages on goals and the absence of sustained diplomatic engagement. And that is precisely the situation the US and Iran find themselves in today.”

The 1,500 troops announced today are a much more modest number than reports in the past few days that CENTCOM was requesting as many as 10,000 from the Defense Department, noted former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth.

“Had there not been so much recent buildup about rising tensions with Iran and are we on the road to Iran, that number might not have gotten a lot of coverage,” Wormuth, now with the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor.

“CENTCOM may be thinking, this is a down payment,” Wormuth continued. “They may be saying to the president and secretary of defense, we want to keep an eye on the situation, maybe we will come back to you and ask for additional deployments.”

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Found in: Iran-US tensions

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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