Pentagon Builds Deterrent Force Against Possible Iranian Attack

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will deploy a Patriot antimissile battery to the Middle East to shore up defenses against Iranian threats, part of a series of carefully calibrated deployments intended to deter attacks by Iranian forces or their proxies, Pentagon officials said on Friday.

A single Patriot antimissile battery will return to the Persian Gulf, just a few months after four batteries were withdrawn from the region. The Pentagon also said it would replace one Navy ship in the region with a more capable vessel, the Arlington, an amphibious ship designed to carry Marines and combat helicopters.

Officials said the new deployments were part of the original request made last weekend by the military’s Central Command after the Trump administration said new intelligence showed that Iran was mobilizing proxy groups in Iraq and Syria to attack American forces. As a result, the Pentagon sent B-52 bombers this week to Al Udeid air base in Qatar and the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier passed through the Suez Canal on its way to the Persian Gulf.

The new steps are meant to be measured and limited, in part because a new intelligence analysis by American and allied spy services has concluded that the Iranian government, declining in popularity amid economic woes, is trying to provoke the United States into a military overreaction to cement its hold on power, according to American and allied intelligence officials. The American intelligence community has not yet done a broader official assessment that would incorporate views from multiple agencies.

Still, divisions within the Trump administration are growing between officials advocating sharp limits on new military deployments and a more hawkish camp that believes the United States must be prepared for a larger-scale fight with Iran.

Military planners were ordered this week to begin preparing for the possibility of a much larger deployment to the region in the event of a military conflict with Iran, two American officials said. Such plans would go well beyond the measured steps the Pentagon took this week.

Those plans, which are in the very early stages, could ultimately call for tens of thousands of additional forces to be sent to the Middle East, the two officials said. Still, officials cautioned that the planning effort underway is extremely preliminary and does not envision a large-scale land operation against Iran.

Nevertheless, the planning effort is controversial within the military, officials said, especially because of the intelligence analysis suggesting that Tehran is trying to provoke an overreaction. Any large-scale deployment, officials noted, would run counter to President Trump’s desire to reduce the overseas deployment of troops.

The new deployments, planning efforts and intelligence analysis came after the United States developed new information last weekend about Iran mobilizing its proxy forces. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that American intelligence had concluded that Iranian-sponsored attacks on United State forces “were imminent.”

American and allied intelligence services intercepted communications between the Iranian government and its proxy forces that analysts have interpreted as encouraging attacks by Iranian-backed terrorist groups on American forces and bases in the Middle East.

On Friday, a Pentagon official said the United States had detected “anomalous naval activity” by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and commercial ships suspected of carrying missiles and other military hardware.

The new intelligence analysis said that President Hassan Rouhani of Iran believed that an attack by proxy forces, or the perception that those forces are preparing a strike, could prompt the United States to strike at an Iranian military target, such as a naval ship or a base, according to American and allied intelligence officials.

The Iranian strategy, the analysis said, is to prod the United States into a miscalculation or overreaction. American officials do not think Iran wants a war, or even a large-scale conflict. But a more limited strike by the United States could serve the Iranian strategy, the analysis said.

Intelligence analyses and assessments in the Middle East have often been fraught, with a troubled record. And officials cautioned that any intelligence analysis that explores the motivations of adversaries is a particularly difficult endeavor. But officials noted that the assessment that Iran is trying to provoke the United States for its own political purposes is an important insight that could help the Trump administration avoid a needless escalation with Tehran.

For now, tension between Washington and Tehran continues to build, bolstered by angry rhetoric by politicians on both sides. Within the American government, John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, is seen as taking a hard line on Iran, dispatching his staff this week to deliver a message about the “ongoing threat” of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Trump has signaled a potentially softer line, however. On Thursday, he said of Iran’s leaders that he “would like to see them call me,” an invitation rejected the next day by a senior Iranian commander.

Some senior members of the National Security Council met on Friday at midday to discuss Iran, according to two American officials. Some in the Defense Department have proposed offering humanitarian assistance to Iranian flood victims and a reduction of some sanctions in return for Iran ending support for Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthi fighters in Yemen. The proposal is viewed skeptically by the N.S.C. staff, according to a senior administration official.

In part because of pressure from the United States and biting sanctions, the Iranian economy is faltering. And with runaway inflation, broad economic problems and labor unrest, the Iranian government believes its popularity is weakening, according to American and allied officials.

Animosity against the government is rising among Iranians, particularly among the middle class and entrepreneurs, who have been frustrated by support for proxy forces, feeling the country has gotten little for its overseas adventurism.

Mr. Rouhani believes his government’s hold on power requires making the United States appear to be a military aggressor against Iran, according to American and allied intelligence officials.

The Trump administration’s pressure campaign has proved effective at damaging the Iranian economy, said Elizabeth Rosenberg, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security. The Trump administration has shown it can use unilateral sanctions to weaponize the international banking system “and cause a lot of pain.”

“There is a political need in Iran to respond to recent U.S. actions, which have had a serious impact in Iran and caused frustration and anger,” she said. “The population needs to see them respond with a show of strength.”

Still, even if Tehran’s strategy fails to either provoke the United States or rally international sympathy, merely sowing regional uncertainty could help Iran in other ways.

Iran may be secretly threatening attacks on the United States and publicly announcing an intention to withdraw from parts of the nuclear deal with the hope of driving up oil prices, current and former officials said in interviews this week.

As United States sanctions make it harder for Iran to sell as much oil, the higher prices make the oil it can sell or smuggle more valuable.

“They want to earn as much as they can from every barrel they are able to export,” said Ms. Rosenberg, a former senior Treasury Department official in the Obama administration. “The threat of hostilities has its own upward pressure on oil prices.”

So far this month, oil prices have reacted far more to news of ups and downs of American trade negotiations with China than they have to tensions between Iran and the United States.

Causing an international crisis, raising tensions and driving oil prices higher are also ways for Iran to show Mr. Trump the political cost of his pressure campaign, according to current and former officials. Mr. Trump has made clear the political importance he places on low oil prices, and the Iranian government is well aware of that, according to former officials.

The intelligence analysis has helped shape the military response. The number of military assets moved to the gulf — four bombers, an aircraft carrier and escort ships — is high profile enough to send a deterrent message but still relatively small. The Lincoln was already on its way to the region and simply cut short European port visits. The Arlington is a replacement for a similar, if less capable, ship.

The response also echoed a measured move by the Obama administration four years ago after the United States detected an Iranian arms shipment to some of Tehran’s proxy forces. In April 2015, the Obama administration ordered the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to move toward Yemen in a show of force to deter an Iranian shipment. That shipment was also thought to contain a ballistic missile or missile parts.

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