Written by David E. Sanger, Edward Wong, Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper
Tensions escalated between the United States and Iran on Monday as the Trump administration accused Iran and militias that it backs of threatening U.S. troops, and Iran signaled it might soon violate part of the 2015 nuclear deal it reached under former President Barack Obama.
European diplomats in touch with senior officials in Tehran said Iran would most likely resume research on high-performance centrifuges used to produce nuclear fuel and put restrictions on nuclear inspections in Iran. It would be Iran’s most significant reaction to date as President Donald Trump has steadily increased sanctions.
At the same time, three US officials cited new intelligence that Iran or its proxies were preparing to attack U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, leading the Pentagon to send an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf as a warning to Tehran.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to get Iran to behave like a normal nation,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Finland.
Taken together, the moves by both sides have brought relations between Trump and Iran to a new low after a period of rapprochement that began in 2013 during the Obama administration.
The Trump administration has consistently sought to isolate Iran’s clerical government. One year ago, Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal that was brokered with world powers, and in the last month alone moved to cut off Iran’s remaining oil exports and designated an Iranian military unit as a terror organization.
Iran’s expected suspension of some elements of the nuclear deal appeared to be a response to the aggressive American policies, which were underscored by the announcement of the USS Abraham Lincoln heading to the Gulf.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran’s government has decided to enforce specific decisions to reciprocate,” reported Iran’s semiofficial news agency, Fars, on Monday, hinting at a coming response to the earlier U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions against Iran.
The move toward suspending some elements of the nuclear deal — although without withdrawing from it — was reported by European officials who have urged Iranian officials to avoid being provoked into overstepping its limits and reuniting the Western allies against Tehran.
The sanctions on Iran’s oil exports were escalated two weeks after the country’s Revolutionary Guard was placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations — the first time that the designation was given to an arm of another nation’s government.
U.S. intelligence and Defense Department officials had opposed the terror designation, concerned that Iran would similarly target or attack U.S. troops and intelligence operatives in the region. Last week, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran declared all American forces in the Middle East as terrorists and labeled the U.S. government a state sponsor of terrorism.
Three senior U.S. officials said new intelligence that surfaced over the weekend raised concerns about the Revolutionary Guard and their activities in Iraq, where they have helped train Shiite Arab militias. The officials would not provide specific details about the threat posed by Iranian forces or Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Tehran’s military.
On Monday afternoon, a Pentagon statement cited “heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests.” A spokesman, Charles E. Summers, said the carrier deployment “ensures we have the forces” in the region to “defend” U.S. troops and interests. He added: “We do not seek war with the Iranian regime.”
The Trump administration has criticized Iran for its support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and military group, and of the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group in Yemen.
John R. Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said in a statement on Sunday night that deploying the aircraft carrier and fighter jets to the Persian Gulf was intended to warn Iran that the United States would respond forcibly to any aggression against U.S. forces or interests in the region. Additionally, one official noted new concerns in waterways where Iranian maritime forces operate.
But memories of the Iraq War and Bolton’s own long history of harsh rhetoric on Iran have left administration officials under pressure to produce evidence of the imminent threat. By late Monday, no one in the Trump administration had stepped forward to make a specific case.
There have been few, if any, specific threats over the last couple of years against U.S. troops in Iraq from armed groups known as Popular Mobilization Forces, some of which are linked to Iran.
There are some 30 armed groups in Iraq that are now part of the Iraqi security forces. Most of them were formed to help fight the Islamic State when the Iraqi army collapsed in 2014, and some were trained and armed by Iran.
Only a handful are ideologically close to the Iranian government. However, those that do rail against the United States and its activities in the Middle East. “We will not take off the clothes of war until we have cut off the head of the snake America, the factory and source of terrorism,” Akram Abbas al-Kaabi, the leader of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, said on Monday after Bolton’s statement. The armed Iraqi group, which is close to Iran, was recently added to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In Finland, where he was attending an annual meeting of the Arctic Council, Pompeo said the new, undisclosed warnings served “to make sure that those planned or contemplated attacks don’t take place and to make sure we have the right security posture.”
In response to the American military moves, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari of Iran said U.S. forces in the region “no longer enjoy calm.”
A Defense Department official said the request to redirect the aircraft carrier group to the region originated on Sunday from Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the new head of U.S. Central Command, after he viewed intelligence showing a change in behavior that could be interpreted to foreshadow an attack on U.S. forces or interests.