US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, May 14, 2019. (ANDREW HARNIK / AP)
WASHINGTON — International worries that the Trump administration is sliding toward war with Iran flared into the open Tuesday amid skepticism about its claims that the Islamic Republic poses a growing threat to the US and its allies in the Persian Gulf and beyond .
Amid those claims, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the same day ruled out any talks with the US government, Tasnim news agency reported.
The US wants Iran to negotiate over its "defensive weapon" and to reduce the range of its missiles, while urging Iran to talk over its regional strategy, the Iranian leader was quoted as saying, reports Xinhua.
Iran's supreme leader stressed that holding "talks with Washington, particularly with the current US government, is poisonous"
"Therefore, the talks (over these issues) are basically wrong," Khamenei said, stressing that holding "talks with Washington, particularly with the current US government, is poisonous."
At the White House, Trump, who has repeatedly argued for avoiding long-term conflicts in the Mideast, 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. But he then stirred the controversy further by saying: "Would I do that? Absolutely."
"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," Trump told reporters.
The US military rebutted doubts expressed by a British general about the growing threat Iran poses.
Would I do that? Absolutely. 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.
US President Donald Trump on Washington's plans to send more troops to counter Iran
"No, there's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria," said Major General Chris Ghika, a senior officer in the US-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State group. But he added, "There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don't see many increased threat from any of them at this stage."
Late in the day, in a rare public rebuttal of an allied military officer, US Central Command said Ghika's remarks "run counter to the identified credible threats" from Iranian-backed forces in the Mideast. In a written statement, Central Command said the coalition in Baghdad has increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria.
Reinforcing Trump's denial, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei 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. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Lavrov said Pompeo told him that a potential deployment of 120,000 US troops to the Mideast was only a "rumor." Lavrov said the international community needs to focus on diplomacy with Iran, including on the potentially explosive issue of Iran's nuclear program, which is constrained by a US-brokered deal in 2015 that Trump has abandoned.
In this May 10, 2019 photo released by the US Navy, logistics specialists prepare to attach cargo to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter on the flight deck the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. (PHOTO / US NAVY VIA AP)
US Iran envoy Brian Hook told reporters traveling with 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." What the Europeans do not share, however, is Washington's more aggressive approach to Iran.
As tensions in the region started to surge, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his nation was worried about the risk of accidental conflict "with an escalation that is unintended really on either side."
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.
Jeremy Hunt, British foreign secretary
"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," Hunt told reporters in Brussels.
On Tuesday, Spain temporarily pulled one of its frigates from the US-led combat fleet heading toward the Strait of Hormuz. That was followed by the public challenge to the Trump administration by British General Ghika.
US officials have not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat amid other signs of allied unease.
Last week, US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on US forces and interests in the Mideast, 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.
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-defense 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, but officials would not disclose their exact location.
Tensions rose another notch with reports Sunday that four commercial vessels anchored off the United Arab Emirates had been damaged by sabotage.
A US military team was sent to the UAE to investigate, and one US official said the initial assessment is that each ship has a 5- to 10-foot hole in it, near or just below the water line. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation, said the early interpretation is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.
The official on Tuesday acknowledged seeing some photographs of the damage to the ships, but those images have not been made public. The team's initial assessment is that the damage was done by Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies, but they are still going through the evidence and have not yet reached a final conclusion, the official said.
With inputs from Xinhua
HONG KONG NEWS