Hawkish American officials, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, have reportedly presented President Donald Trump with a new military plan aimed at Iran, which would see Washington deploy tens of thousands of troops to the Middle East.
Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan put forward the plan — which he had updated on Bolton’s orders — at a meeting of Trump’s top national security aides on broader Iran policy last Thursday, The New York Times reported Monday, citing unnamed administration officials.
The officials said that during the meeting, Shanahan gave an overview of the Pentagon’s planning and then turned to US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford to detail various force options.
“The uppermost option called for deploying 120,000 troops, which would take weeks or months to complete,” the report said.
The number of the US troops planned for the deployment “would approach the size of the American force that invaded Iraq in 2003,” the report added.
Among those attending the Thursday meeting were Bolton, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats besides Dunford and Shanahan, the report noted.
However, spokesmen for Shanahan and Dunford declined to comment on the meeting.
Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said the US “does not seek war with Iran,” but it is “ready to defend US personnel and interests in the region.”
The report, however, said it is highly uncertain if Trump — who is currently seeking to pull US forces out of Afghanistan and Syria — would agree to send back so many forces to the region.
It is also unclear whether Trump has been briefed on the number of troops or other details in the plans, according to The Times.
On Monday, the US president warned that Iran would “suffer greatly” were it to “do anything.”
“I’m hearing little stories about Iran,” Trump told reporters as he hosted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the White House. “If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.”
During a special briefing in Brussels, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook echoed Trump’s threat, saying, “Iran’s era of deniable attacks is over. Tehran will be held accountable for the attacks of its proxies.”
He also said that the US administration “has put in place an entirely new foreign policy with respect to” the Iranian government.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have seen a sharp rise since April 2018, when Bolton — one of the administration’s most virulent Iran hawks — was appointed national security advisor.
A month later, Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal in defiance of global objections and unleashed a campaign of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic by re-imposing the “toughest ever” sanctions against it.
Last month, Trump also designated Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) as a “foreign terrorist organization,” marking the first time the US blacklisted another country’s military.
Ahead of the first anniversary of Washington’s exit from the Iran deal on May 8, the US moved to force Iran’s oil exports to “zero” and, at the same time, sent an aircraft carrier strike group, a bomber squad, an amphibious assault ship, and a Patriot missile battery to the Middle East to try to step up pressure on Tehran.
According to The New York Times report, there are “sharp divisions” within the US administration on how to deal with Iran.
While many analysts believe Trump’s Iran policy has fallen into Bolton’s hands, a general understanding that “John wants to bomb everyone” has given Trump — who has repeatedly said he is not after war with Iran — some “big reservations,” one former senior official told The New Yorker.
Iran has downplayed Washington’s belligerent rhetoric and said the US is engaging in “psychological warfare.” The Islamic Republic has, however, warned the US of a crushing response if it poses any security risk to the country.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last month that he does not believe Trump wants war with Iran, but that he could be lured into a conflict by the hawkish “B-team,” which includes Bolton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.