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US sending troops to Mideast amid Gulf tensions over Iran

June 19, 2019

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WASHINGTON: A handout photo released by the US Department of Defence on Monday shows an Iranian patrol boat armed with a Russian-made ZU-23-2 and a twin-barrelled anti-aircraft cannon.—AFP
WASHINGTON: A handout photo released by the US Department of Defence on Monday shows an Iranian patrol boat armed with a Russian-made ZU-23-2 and a twin-barrelled anti-aircraft cannon.—AFP

WASHINGTON: The US is sending 1,000 more troops to the Middle East as tensions in the Gulf mounted on Tuesday over Iran’s announcement it will not comply with the international agreement that keeps it from making nuclear weapons. At the same time, Iran insisted it was not seeking war.

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it could soon start enriching uranium to just a step away from weapons-grade levels challenged President Donald Trump’s assurances to allies that the US withdrawal from the deal last year made the world a safer place.

The Pentagon responded by ordering 1,000 more troops to the Middle East, including security forces for additional surveillance and intelligence-gathering. The escalation of American military might was aimed at deterring Iran and calming allies worried about the safety of strategic shipping lanes .

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, insisted on Tuesday that while “we do not wage war with any nation,” Iranians will withstand mounting US pressure and emerge victorious.

After Trump withdrew from the deal signed by President Barack Obama, he reinstated stiff economic sanctions, leaving the European and other partners in the accord struggling to keep Iran on board.

Iran’s announcement that it would not abide by a limit on uranium stockpiles established under the 2015 agreement puts the US in the awkward position of demanding that Iran comply with a deal that Trump derides as the worst in history.

“We continue to call on the Iranian regime not to obtain a nuclear weapon, to abide by their commitments to the international community,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

The US accuses Iran of attacking two tankers near the Gulf; the Iranians deny responsibility. With details murky and no one owning up to the attacks, the Pentagon released new photos intended to bolster its case.

In announcing the new deployment, acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the forces are “for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats” in the Mideast.

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” Shanahan said, describing the move as intended “to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests.” He said the US will continue to adjust troop levels as needed.

Russia urged restraint by all parties and worries that the additional American forces could “bring in extra tensions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Some supporters of the multinational nuclear deal blamed the Trump administration for Iran’s provocative announcements, saying they were predictable given the renewed US pressure.

“While Iran’s frustration with Trump’s reckless and irresponsible pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal,” the Arms Control Association said in a statement. “It remains in Iran’s interests to abide by the limits of the agreement.” Iran has shown no willingness to negotiate another deal and has pledged not enter into talks with the United States while the administration keeps up the pressure with sanctions.

Administration officials are struggling with whether to press the remaining parties to the deal, including Britain, France and Germany, to demand that Iran stay in compliance. They must also consider whether such a stance would essentially concede that the restrictions imposed during the Obama administration are better than none.

Under the deal, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency, said it would pass that limit June 27.

A senior US official said the US is most concerned about any violation of the deal that would reduce the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear weapon. The deal aimed to keep that “breakout time” at one year.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2019