The Trump administration doesn’t want war with Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, but he warned Tehran of a “swift and decisive” US response to any attack.
Iran “has engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements in recent weeks,” Pompeo said in a statement, echoing Pentagon and unnamed US officials. He provided no specifics about the nature or scope of that threat, but other US officials have said that they’ve observed Iranian forces moving missiles around on boats.
“The regime in Tehran should understand that any attacks by them or their proxies of any identity against US interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive US response,” said the top diplomat, who cut short overseas travel to fly back to Washington Wednesday for urgent meetings on the situation with Iran and North Korea.
He warned Tehran not to mistake Washington’s “restraint” for “a lack of resolve” and closed by repeating an offer from President Donald Trump.
Meeting with Iran
“As President Trump stated yesterday, he ‘looks forward to someday meeting with leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves,’” Pompeo said.
Pompeo issued his statement after the US sent a Navy strike group and bomber into the Persian Gulf, citing “specific and credible” threats against US forces. Iranian officials, however, including President Hassan Rouhani, have said they have no interest in a conflict that analysts say the country can ill afford. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said Tehran believes some US officials are trying to provoke Iran into a conflict, portraying it as a trap Tehran means to avoid.
Speaking in New York on April 23 as tensions rose, Zarif said “It is not a crisis yet, but it is a dangerous situation. Accidents, plotted accidents, are possible.” Referring to a group of foreign and domestic officials that includes national security adviser John Bolton, the Iranian official added that he “wouldn’t discount the B team plotting an accident anywhere in the region.”
The release from Pompeo comes a day after Iran declared it would ease its adherence to the international nuclear pact that constrains its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The Trump administration, which abandoned the deal a year ago, has made it nearly impossible for Iran to access the financial benefits of the deal.
“The path we have chosen today is not the path of war, it is the path of diplomacy,” Rouhani said when he made the announcement in a nationally televised address. “But diplomacy with a new language and a new logic.”
The US has also taken recent measures that could make it impossible for Iran to adhere to the pact, ending non-proliferation related waivers that allowed Iran to export heavy water and low-enriched uranium to stay below levels mandated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known.
Pompeo issued his statement as a US official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN that the latest intelligence indicates there’s no sign of a “decrease in Iran’s posture” or the signals that prompted the US to move a Navy strike group and B-52 bombers to the region, according to a US official with direct knowledge of the latest intelligence.
“There is no intelligence to indicate a decrease in Iran’s posture or intentions,” the official said.
Iranian commanders have not issued a “wave-off” to Iranian-backed militias and Revolutionary Guard Corps elements to stop planning for possible attacks against US forces in the region, the official added. “We are looking for anything to reflect a change in their behavior and are not seeing it,” the official said.
CNN has reported US officials’ claims that intelligence shows Iran is likely moving short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles aboard boats in the Persian Gulf. The US military believes that cruise missiles could be launched from the small Iranian boats known as dhows. Officials have now clarified that those boats are IRGC-naval assets, not regular Iranian navy boats.
In addition to the threat of attack against US navy ships, these officials say Iran continues to pose a threat to US military bases and airfields in the region.
Several officials tell CNN it is not clear that the central Iranian government has given orders to the militias giving them permission to attack. The US has monitored “chatter” on several different levels among Iranian players.
An official told CNN that the intelligence community is still trying to assess exactly what is happening and whether it’s possible that the Iranians are simply raising tensions against the Americans, but not taking the final step to attack.
Arms control specialists said Iranian missile movements would not contravene UN resolutions, while analysts said deterrence moves from Tehran were to be expected, particularly given an Iranian security official’s comments that Iran’s armed forces had detected the American aircraft carrier when it entered the Mediterranean Sea more than three weeks ago.
Given the circumstances, Iran would naturally be making preparations as well as a show of deterrence, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“They might have forces getting ready in case we enter a hot war – you see the latest information from the Pentagon about missile parts on boats – but if the Iranians are serious, they’re going to have to think about a potential war, think about ways to retaliate or deter the US and that includes US allies, as well,” Vatanka said.
That said, Vatanka, who has been following Iran for 20 years, says he believes its leaders do not want to provoke a conflict.
“While it is true they want to create leverage for themselves in the theater, as a way of shaping America’s next moves – maybe some limited maneuverings are happening just to make Americans wonder what Iran will do next – but overall, on a strategic level, Iranian leaders believe that provoking the US into open hostility would risk the Islamic Republic’s grip on power,” Vatanka said.
With the boat movements, the Iranians are signaling their ability to push back. “They’re trying to shape everybody’s calculations as this thing is escalating,” Vatanka said.
Kelsey Davenport from the Arms Control Association in Washington said she sees no violation of UN resolutions if Iran is moving missiles by boat, but added that she didn’t know how common it was for them transport them that way.
Davenport also noted that Iran has the capability to target US assets without moving short-range ballistic missiles to sea. Its medium-range ballistic missiles have a range of 2,000 kilometers, meaning that threat is already established.
Former State Department official Robert Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, said “ballistic missiles, unlike cruise missiles, are not typically launched from surface ships. Perhaps the missiles in question are simply being moved.”
The US Maritime Administration is expected to issue an advisory to regional shipping warning them of the tensions.
Separately, CNN has learned that Bolton held an unusual briefing for the national security council principals at CIA headquarters on April 29, according to two US officials.
Typically these meetings take place at White House. The meeting was first reported by NBC.
The officials said among the attendees included acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.