A drone strike on Saudi oil assets by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels escalated tension between Tehran and Riyadh and triggered fresh unease in Washington on Tuesday, even as President Trump denied a report that he was weighing plans to send 120,000 U.S. troops to the region if Iran continues its provocations.
In Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also insisted there would be no war between the U.S. and Iran, but the pronouncements did little to ally diplomatic and financial unease that the two sides could be heading for a clash.
Mr. Trump insisted to reporters no major U.S. troop deployment to the region is in the works, but added that if the troop number would be “a hell of a lot” higher if the U.S. did decide to take action.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also played down the prospect of conflict in a meeting Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, telling reporters that despite deep concerns over Iranian policies, “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.”
But Mr. Trump has expressed growing irritation with recent Iranian actions as the U.S. tightens a global campaign to shut down Iranian oil exports. His comments Tuesday came after news emerged that two pumping stations along a key Saudi Aramco oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia were attacked by explosive-laden drones on Tuesday.
Saudi officials said the damage was limited, but denounced the attack as an “act of terrorism” as Yemen’s Houthi rebels quickly claimed responsibility. The Saudi military has waged a violent campaign against the Iran-backed rebels in recent years.
Tuesday developments were blamed for a modest jump in global oil prices and came just a day after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said three oil ships under their flags and one from Norway were also attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial export channel off the Iranian coast.
Analysts say the oil attacks may been driven by Iranian desires to disrupt Saudi, Emirati and other exports the U.S. hopes will fill a gap in world supplies as the Trump administration expands its global embargo on Iranian crude.
The deployment of an American aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East last week, in concert with the anniversary of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, has added to the current tensions.
Administration officials have said the carrier deployment was justified by intelligence on a potentially imminent attack by Iran on U.S. interests in Iraq, but have provided no other details publicly — a situation that triggered frustration among some U.S. allies.
A top British commander working within a the current U.S.-lead coalition of forces in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday disputed the administration’s claims, telling at a news conference there has been “no increased threat” from Iranian proxies in Iraq or Syria. Spanish officials, citing what they said were “technical” reasons, have withdrawn a frigate that was part of the U.S. armada heading to the Gulf.
The Pentagon pushed back at the comments by British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika later in the day, with U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban asserting they had “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region.”
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the White House ordered up a Pentagon plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the region should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump denied the report Tuesday, calling it “fake news.”
The deployment plan, said to be requested by National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, reportedly did not include a potential land invasion of Iran, something specialists say would require far more than 120,000 troops. “Any operations of real consequence will require many more troops,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who held command positions in Iraq during the early years of the post-9/11 U.S. occupation there.
“In this confrontation, [the] U.S. will have to withdraw,” he said, according to an Iranian government Twitter account. “We don’t seek a war nor do they. They know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them.”
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