Tensions with Iran escalate beyond war of words

Tensions between the United States and Iran are reaching a boiling point as the first anniversary of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rips Dems' demands, impeachment talk: 'Witch Hunt continues!' Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push MORE’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal approaches.

The Trump administration on Sunday said a U.S. carrier strike group is headed to the region in response to unspecified “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”

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The following day, several official and semi-official Iranian news agencies hinted at responses coming later this week to mark Trump’s announcement on May 8, 2018, to abandon U.S. participation in the 2015 accord. Those responses could reportedly include Iran reducing its compliance with the agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“As the one year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA fast approaches, Washington is ratcheting up the pressure on Iran through diplomatic, economic, and now even military means,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email to The Hill.

The Trump administration has been ramping up criticism of Tehran considerably in recent weeks, with more sanctions expected in the coming days.

The administration last month took the unprecedented step of designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a “foreign terrorist organization,” the first time the United States has used the label on an entire government entity.

At the time of the designation, opponents warned that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in the region could retaliate against U.S. troops, such as those in Iraq operating in proximity with IRGC-aligned militias.

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U.S. intelligence has now reportedly assessed a threat against American forces from Iranian and proxy forces, prompting Sunday night’s announcement about the carrier deployment.

Iran hard-liners in Congress cheered the deployment and warned against any attack on U.S. forces.

“We will not distinguish between attacks from Shia militias in #Iraq & the #IRGC that controls them,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioAnother VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress MORE (R-Fla.) tweeted Monday. “Any attack by these groups against U.S. forces will be considered an attack by #Iran & responded to accordingly.”

Critics, though, suggested threats against U.S. forces were inevitable after Trump’s terrorist designation against the IRGC.

“When I was in Baghdad last month, our diplomatic and military leaders were almost unanimously opposed to the designation because of its practical impact on our objectives in Iraq,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyIraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran Trump officials say US efforts to deter Iran have worked Connecticut radio station rebrands itself 'Trump 103.3' MORE (D-Conn.) tweeted Monday.

“Drawing a hard line on Iran in Iraq might sound good on paper, but it might end up w our troops getting kicked out of Iraq again, opening the door for ISIS,” he added in another tweet. “That would be much more disastrous than the inconvenience of leaving the IRGC off the list of terrorist groups.”

Trump last year withdrew from the international nuclear accord, calling it the “worst deal ever negotiated.” The Obama-era agreement between Iran and the United States, European Union, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China gave Tehran billions in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Europe has been scrambling to save the deal, but Iran appears increasingly impatient as the Trump administration tightens sanctions and as Europe’s efforts to provide a sanctions workaround fall short.

Iran’s official IBID news agency said Monday that the country would resume some nuclear activities, while the semiofficial ISNA and Fars news agencies ran stories promising “reciprocal” actions on the first anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal.

IBID said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would announce a reduction in some of the country’s “minor and general” commitments. The Fars report quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, as saying in December his country could ignore the limit on uranium enrichment “whenever we wish, and would do the enrichment at any volume and level.”

ISNA specified that withdrawing from the deal is “not considered as an option for now,” but that the country’s action will be in line with an article of the deal that says Iran will treat the reimposition of sanctions “as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”

Those remarks came a day after national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonIraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds Trump officials say US efforts to deter Iran have worked MORE said the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group and a bomber task force are deploying to the U.S. Central Command region “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said in a statement.

Other Trump administration officials on Monday cited a threat from Iran but did not provide details.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Iraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds MORE said there was a “credible threat” by Iranian forces.

“We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation,” Shanahan tweeted. “We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on US forces or our interests.”

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Iraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds MORE told reporters traveling with him in Finland that the United States has “continued to see activity that leads us to believe that there’s escalation that may be taking place.”

The Navy first announced in early April that the Lincoln was deploying to sail around the world, from Norfolk, Va., to its new home in San Diego. Fleet trackers like the U.S. Naval Institute showed Monday that the carrier was in the central Mediterranean Sea, an area that’s part of U.S. European Command.

But it is not uncommon for the U.S. to deploy carriers to the Persian Gulf; the USS John C. Stennis was in the region two months ago.

Those factors, combined with Bolton’s outspoken support for military action in the lead-up to the Iraq War, prompted critics to accuse the national security adviser of using a routine carrier deployment to unnecessarily escalate tensions with Iran.

“Members of the Trump administration appear to be repeating the George W. Bush administration’s playbook for war with Iraq,” Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said in a statement. “Bolton has gone into overdrive in recent weeks to spur Iranian retaliation to justify his reckless aggression—including using the routine deployment of an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf to threaten ‘unrelenting force’ against Iran.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson on Monday confirmed that the Lincoln’s deployment had been planned “for some time now.”

But he also suggested the carrier is being moved from where it was initially planned to be at this point, at the direction of Bolton and Shanahan.

“This is the beauty of having a dynamic force," he tweeted. "The @USNavy can easily maneuver to protect national interests around the globe.”

Shanahan referred to the move as a “prudent repositioning of assets” in his Monday tweet.

Later that day, the Department of Defense issued a statement saying it “remains integrated with the rest of the government's efforts to address malign Iranian behavior. DoD retains a robust military capability in the region that is ready to respond to any crisis."

Speaking earlier at the Sea-Air-Space conference in Maryland, Richardson sidestepped a question about whether the security situation in the Middle East has changed.

“If you just read … Bolton’s remarks, you’ve got the answer to your question,” he told a reporter.