Shanahan: US could send additional troops to Middle East

Tensions ongoing with Iran

By Barbara Starr, Zachary Cohen and Michelle Kosinski, CNN
Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan

(CNN) - Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the US is considering sending additional troops to the Middle East to "enhance force protection" amid tensions with Iran.

Shanahan also said he would brief President Donald Trump Thursday on the security situation with Iran, while the President told reporters he would be willing to send extra troops to the region "if we need them."

"I would if we need them," Trump said of a new troop deployment. I don't think we're going to need them. I really don't. ... I would certainly send troops if we need them," Trump said in remarks at the White House Thursday. "Iran has been a very dangerous player, a very bad player, they're a nation of terror and we won't put up with it."

Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that the enhanced protection for troops "may involve sending additional troops," and added that some media reports about the numbers that could be sent are inaccurate. "There is no 10,000 and there is no 5,000, that's not accurate," he said.

The proposed troop increase was made at the request of US Central Command, a senior defense official told CNN. Central Command oversees US military operations in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Shanahan had declared that the US does not want the situation to escalate and isn't seeking a war, after briefing lawmakers angry at being kept in the dark about the administration's motives for sending warships to the Middle East to counter Iran.

Pressure

The warship deployment was followed by a steady drumbeat of further leaks from US officials about Iranian military movements that they say constitute a threat.

The heightened tensions and talk of additional US troop deployments to the region has concerned US allies.

Two diplomatic sources of US allies told CNN they are concerned about the talk of the US sending troops to the Middle East and they have not been briefed on the situation. They are seeking more information, watching with great interest, and are worried about further escalation.

One said they are "trying to calm down people back home" about this.

Tensions have escalated sharply in recent weeks, after a year of steadily increasing US pressure on Iran's economy. The Trump administration moved in April to cut Iran's ability to export oil and limit its non-proliferation activity as required under the 2015 nuclear deal, which Washington abandoned in 2018.

In response, Iran announced that it would stop fully complying with the international pact and would remove caps on uranium enrichment levels. On Monday, an Iranian energy official announced the country has increased its uranium enrichment fourfold and informed the International Atomic Energy Agency.

One German Foreign Ministry source said their political director went to Tehran today to try to defuse the situation, preserve the JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is formally known, and talk the Iranians out of increasing their uranium enrichment and ignoring the caps the deal set.

"We are concerned because this is a serious situation, and things can happen. Not intentionally -- but it can be a dangerous situation," the source said. "We need a dialogue now, and that is why [our political director] went to Tehran."

The source noted that there was no coordination with the United States beforehand, but there was discussion with European partners, China and Russia -- countries that remain party to the nuclear deal and want to keep it intact in the face of US pressure.

Asked about the visit to Tehran, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the US believes the visit to be "normal behavior between two states and we appreciate any efforts by the Germans to help de-escalate the situation."

'Quite over in our messaging'

Asked more broadly about the reported uptick in foreign delegations visiting Iran and whether the US is using them to communicate with Tehran, Ortagus said she was not aware of reports of an increase in foreign delegations to Iran. "The US has been "quite overt in our messaging to Iran," she added.

"We have said very publicly that we want people, anyone who has a vested interest in the situation, to urge Iran to de-escalate this behavior," Ortagus said.

This latest discussion of additional forces is directly tied to the intelligence that Trump administration officials say they have had since early May that Iran was planning for a possible attack on US forces and interests in the region -- intelligence that has been contested by Democrats and undermined by the President himself.

National security adviser John Bolton cited the intelligence to justify the accelerated deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, as well as the deployment of B-52 bombers and a Patriot missile battery that is still in the process of being sent.

But Trump has countered Bolton's characterization and contributed to the confusion about the intelligence, saying Monday about threats from Iran that "we have no indication that anything's happened or will happen, but if it does it will be met, obviously, with great force."

Democrats emerged from Tuesday's briefing arguing that the Iranian response to the appearance of US warships was predictable, particularly after a year of increasing US economic pressure. They said the threat stream was not unusual for that conflict-ridden part of the world and that they're concerned about possible miscalculations in the near term and what they called the lack of an administration strategy in the long term.

"There are clearly threats to US interests in the region, but those threats are predictable," said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. "Multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic administrations, refused to take the steps that the Trump administration has taken because they knew it would result in the Iranians looking at US assets in the region as targets."

CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.