WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States military struggled on Thursday to explain its plans for potential increases in U.S. forces in the Middle East amid concerns Iran could carry out further aggressive actions in the region.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters the United States was considering sending thousands of additional troops to the Middle East to deter Iran, but that no decision had been made and the situation remained fluid.
The officials cited intelligence over the past month indicating that Iran had been repositioning forces and weapons.
The Pentagon on Wednesday strongly denied a Wall Street Journal report that the United States was considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the region.
Lawmakers on Thursday pressed John Rood, the Pentagon’s No. 3 official, on whether additional troops were being considered for the Middle East.
“Based on what we’re seeing with our concerns about the threat picture, it is possible that we would need to adjust our force posture,” Rood said.
“We are always considering and in fact, based on the threat situation in the Middle East are watching that, and as necessary the secretary of defence has told me he intends to make changes to our force posture there,” Rood said.
Lawmakers appeared frustrated by Rood’s answers. Republican Senator Josh Hawley said he wanted to hear from Defence Secretary Mark Esper.
“I’d like to hear from him today on this issue … I’d like to have it in public because the Pentagon has now made multiple contradictory public statements,” Hawley said.
The United States has already dispatched about 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East since May, backed by bombers and air defence personnel, to act as a deterrent against what Washington says is provocative Iranian behaviour.
The Pentagon’s openness to deploying additional troops is unsurprising, given regular planning meant to address potential spikes in tensions with Iran, which is struggling with U.S. sanctions and street protests.
Iranian security forces may have killed more than 1,000 people since the protests over gasoline price hikes began in mid-November, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Thursday, in what would mark the bloodiest disturbances since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Tensions have risen in the Gulf since attacks on oil tankers during the summer, including off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and a major assault on energy facilities in Saudi Arabia. The United States has blamed Iran, which has denied being behind the attacks on global energy infrastructure.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Tom Brown)