Iran threat forces White House to push through arms sales to Middle East, says Mike Pompeo

News comes after the US said it would deploy an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a keynote address at the Israeli Embassy's Independence Day Celebration at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington DC on May 22, 2019.  / AFP / MANDEL NGAN
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The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that planned arms sales to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that will bypass congressional approval are needed quickly as any delay could increase the risk for American partners at a time of instability caused by Iran.

Mr Pompeo's statement came just hours after the Pentagon said it would send an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East to bolster defences against Iran as it accused country's Revolutionary Guard of direct responsibility for this month's tanker attacks off the coast of the UAE.

"These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Mr Pompeo said in a statement. He added that the decision to circumvent Congress was meant to be a "one-time event".

The move will allow 22 arms sales worth a combined $8 billion to go ahead without the usual approval from Congress. Some legislators expressed concerns that the move would set a dangerous precedent for the White House to operate unilaterally without congressional oversight.

Friday’s announcement of more troops to the Middle East marks a departure for President Donald Trump who has sought to untangle the US military from open-ended conflicts in places such as Syria and Afghanistan and has repeatedly said the US should have a smaller overseas footprint long before taking office in 2017. He said last Thursday that he did not believe more soldiers on the ground was needed.

But on Friday, he described the deployment as a defensive measure. The forces to be sent to the region include missile defence systems personnel, aerial surveillance operators to spot threats and engineers to fortify defences.

"We want to have protection in the Middle East. We're going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective," Mr Trump said as he left the White House for a trip to Japan.

The deployment is relatively small, compared with the approximately 70,000 American troops already stationed across the region. Almost 600 of the 1,500 troops earmarked for the move are in fact already in the Middle East manning Patriot missiles. They will see their deployments extended.

But with tensions in the region high over threats being traded between Tehran and Washington, the Pentagon stressed the defensive element of the deployment – a clear departure from the statement just weeks before by US national security adviser John Bolton that the USS Lincoln carrier group was headed to the Gulf region as a deterrent.

The Pentagon said none of the 1,500 soldiers would be headed for potential hotspots such as Iraq or Syria.

"These are defensive forces," said Katie Wheelbarger, one of the Pentagon's most senior policy officials.

As well as the aircraft carrier strike group, the Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of bombers and additional Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack US forces or interests.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif labelled the move “extremely dangerous” on Saturday.

"Increased US presence in our region is extremely dangerous and it threatens international peace and security, and this should be addressed," state news agency Irna quoted Mr Zarif as saying.

Rear Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, on Friday described US intelligence portraying a new Iranian "campaign" that used old tactics, and stretched from Iraq to Yemen to the waters in the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime choke-point for the global oil trade.

Admiral Gilday accused the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) of being directly responsible for attacks on tankers off the UAE earlier this month, in what could be a foreshadowing of the conclusion of ongoing investigations into the incident.

"The attack against the shipping in Fujairah, we attribute it to the IRGC," he said, explaining that the Pentagon linked limpet mines used in the attack directly to the IRGC.

He declined to describe "the means of delivery" of the mines, however.

Admiral Gilday also accused Iran-backed "proxy" forces of carrying out a rocket attack in Baghdad's Green Zone last week.

The Pentagon did not provide any evidence to support its claims, but said it hoped to declassify more intelligence that showed this. Iran has dismissed the accusations entirely and accuses the United States of brinkmanship with its troop deployments.

Mr Trump played down the potential for military conflict in the region, saying he believed Iran did not want a confrontation with the United States, even as Washington tightens sanctions with a goal of pushing Iran to make concessions beyond the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal.

Mr Trump pulled out of the agreement between Iran and six major world powers last year.

"Right now, I don't think Iran wants to fight. And I certainly don't think they want to fight with us," Mr Trump said.

"But they cannot have nuclear weapons," he continued. "They can't have nuclear weapons. And they understand that."

But Pete Buttigieg, one of the leading Democratic contenders to challenge Mr Trump in next year's presidential election, warned that the situation could get of control.

"What we are seeing right now is a set of escalations, which could very quickly get away from this president," Mr Buttigieg, a former navy officer who served in Afghanistan, told The National.

Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Brigadier General Hassan Seif, an assistant to the Islamic Republic’s army head, as saying he believed “rational elements” in the US administration would avert a conflict.

"We believe rational Americans and their experienced commanders will not let their radical elements lead them into a situation from which it would be very difficult to get out, and that is why they will not enter a war," Brig Gen Seifi was quoted as saying.

General Morteza Qorbani, an adviser to Iran's military command, told Iranian media that they have a "secret weapon" that could sink US warships in the event of a conflict.

"America... is sending two warships to the region. If they commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons," he said.

The US has placed vast aircraft carriers backed by a verity of support vessels in carrier groups at the centre of its defensive deterrence and power projection for decades. Although some military analysts have questioned the vulnerability of the large floating airfields to high-tech missiles produced by China and Russia that could overwhelm missile defences, US defence officials have said they are still confident in the strategy.