The US military has countered doubts expressed by a British general about the potential threat Iran poses to the US and its allies amid fears America is sliding towards war with the Islamic Republic.
Maj Gen Chris Ghika, a senior British officer in the US-backed coalition fighting Islamic State (IS), exposed international scepticism over the American military build-up in the Middle East, a legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was predicated on false intelligence.
US officials have not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat amid other signs of allied unease.
Sailors assigned to the USS Nitze (DDG 94) participate in visit, board, search and seizure training. Nitze, as part of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group (ABECSG), is deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. https://t.co/AOYUbZIx67 pic.twitter.com/2nhTwc54UD
— U.S. 5th Fleet (@US5thFleet) May 14, 2019
As tensions in the region surge, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said British officials are worried about the risk of a conflict between the US and Iran which neither side intends.
Mr Hunt told reporters in Brussels: “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict.
“What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking.”
US president Donald Trump also denied a report that his administration has updated plans to send more than 100,000 troops to counter Iran if necessary.
Mr Trump then stirred the controversy further by saying: “Would I do that? Absolutely.”
"Militarily, we continue our campaign to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh. But we cannot do it ourselves: campaigns cannot be won by fighting alone." – MG C. Ghika. Watch his comments live now at https://t.co/e6Ps5EIt9K pic.twitter.com/bD3H8WR0h2
— Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) May 14, 2019
On Tuesday, Spain temporarily pulled one of its frigates from the US-led combat fleet heading towards the Strait of Hormuz. That was followed by the unusual public challenge to the Trump administration by Maj Gen Ghika.
The general, speaking in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad, said: “No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
He told reporters at the Pentagon that the coalition monitors the presence of Iranian-backed forces “along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in”.
But he added: “There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see any increased threat from any of them at this stage.”
Later in the day, in a rare public rebuttal of an allied military officer, US Central Command said Maj Gen Ghika’s remarks “run counter to the identified credible threats” from Iranian-backed forces in the Middle East.
In a written statement, Central Command said the coalition in Baghdad has increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria.
“As a result, (the coalition) is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq,” the statement said.
At the White House, Mr Trump, who has repeatedly argued for avoiding long-term conflicts in the Middle East, discounted a New York Times report that the US has updated plans that could send up to 120,000 troops to counter Iran if it attacked American forces.
“Would I do that? Absolutely,” he told reporters.
“But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Reinforcing Mr Trump’s denial, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Sochi with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov: “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.”
A Trump administration official said a recent small meeting of national security officials was not focused on a military response to Iran, but instead concentrated on a range of other policy options, including diplomacy and economic sanctions.
Mr Lavrov said Mr Pompeo told him that a potential deployment of 120,000 US troops to the Middle East was only a “rumour”.
The Russian foreign minister added that the international community needs to focus on diplomacy with Iran, including on the potentially explosive issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, which is constrained by a US-brokered deal in 2015 that Mr Trump abandoned.
US Iranian envoy Brian Hook told reporters travelling with Mr Pompeo in Brussels that the secretary of state shared intelligence on Iran with allies since “Europe shares our concerns about stability in the Gulf and the Middle East”.
Last week, US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on American forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not spelled out that threat.
The US has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and about 2,000 in Syria as part of the coalition campaign to defeat the Islamic State group there.
It also has long had a variety of air and naval forces stationed in Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf, partly to support military operations against IS and partly as a counter to Iranian influence.
Maj Gen Ghika’s comments came amid dramatically heightened tensions in the Middle East. The US in recent days has ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf region, plus four B-52 bombers.
It also is moving a Patriot air-defence missile battery to an undisclosed country in the area. As of Tuesday, the Lincoln and its strike group had passed through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea.