Photographs of Iranian missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf reportedly became a cause for the recent escalation of warnings among White House officials.
Overhead imagery showed fully assembled missiles, stoking fears that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at US naval ships, officials familiar with the matter told the New York Times.
Three officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the issue publicly, said that the intelligence presented a different kind of threat that had been previously seen from Iran. However, officials said that while President Trump’s hard-line national security adviser John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo see these photographs as a justification for viewing Iran as a threat, other parties, including the Europeans, Iraqis, members of both parties in Congress and some senior officials within the Trump administration, suggested that the move to put missiles on ships represents a defensive action against what Tehran believes are provocative acts by Washington.
The State Department on Wednesday ordered a partial evacuation of the United States Embassy in Baghdad and a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that one senior American official said was an overreaction to the intelligence.
Intelligence officials declassified a photograph of one of the small boats, called dhows, carrying what was described as a functional Iranian missile after Bolton announced that the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln would sail to the Gulf sooner than expected.
The Pentagon, however, has not released the photograph as, according to two American officials, it was not compelling enough to convince the American public and lawmakers, or foreign allies, of the new Iranian threat. The other photographs, which remain classified, show the Revolutionary Guards loading missiles onto the boats at several Iranian ports, the two American officials claimed.
The photographs were among at least three streams of intelligence that alarmed national security officials and convinced many that a more serious threat from Iran was emerging. These include conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq as well as intelligence about Iran targeting commercial shipping, which led US officials to believe that Iran was behind this week’s sabotage of four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Officials, however, still do not have a conclusive forensic analysis that shows Iran’s involvement in any kind of sabotage.
Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees who was briefed last week on the new intelligence, said on Wednesday that while he did not want a war with Iran, the United States must respond if attacked.
“I’ve been here eight years. This is, by far, the single most imminent potential conflict of this significance that I have been around. This is real. This is not a fake thing. It’s not being made up by somebody. This president does not even want to have troops in the Middle East,” Rubio said, cited by the Times.
Tensions in the region have been high recently, as the United States reinforced its military presence in the Persian Gulf with the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to send “a clear and unmistakable message” to Tehran. Washington also approved the additional deployment of the Patriot missile defence system and amphibious warship USS Arlington to the region. Iran has repeatedly expressed its readiness to retaliate in the event of a military conflict.