WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump said 1,500 U.S. troops will be sent to the Middle East to bolster its forces amid rising tensions with Iran, but he insisted they would play a “mostly protective” role.
Trump’s announcement on May 24 was later followed by a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the administration planned to sell $8.1 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan to "deter Iranian aggression."
The moves were part of increasingly belligerent rhetoric from the Trump administration toward Tehran.
Last month, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group was ordered to the waters near Iran and some nonessential personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad have been withdrawn as a protective measure.
In comments to reporters as he left for a trip to Japan, Trump said that the additional troops would play a “mostly protective” role.
“We want to have protection in the Middle East. We're going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective," he said.
"Some very talented people are going to the Middle East right now. And we'll see what happens," he added.
In a briefing with reporters, Defense Department officials for the first time blamed Iran and its allies publicly for recent bombings on tanker ships near United Arab Emirates, along with a rocket attack in Iraq.
Vice Admiral Michael Gilday, a top official on the Joint Chiefs of staff, said U.S. officials had "very high confidence" that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was responsible for the explosions on four ships.
Katie Wheelbarger, the acting assistant defense secretary for international affairs, meanwhile, said the deployment of the troops was strictly defensive and not designed to provoke Iran into carrying out additional attacks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. move to send troops to the Middle East was "extremely dangerous...[for] international peace."
"Increased U.S. presence in our region is extremely dangerous and it threatens international peace and security, and this should be addressed," state news agency IRNA quoted Zarif as saying on May 25.
Relations between Tehran and Washington have plummeted since Trump a year ago pulled the United States out of a 2015 nuclear accord between world powers and Iran. The agreement curbed the Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.
Since then, the Trump administration has stepped up its rhetoric and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
There are about 70,000 U.S. troops across the Middle East, including at a naval base in Bahrain and an air force operations center in Qatar. Additionally, about 5,200 troops are currently in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria.
The administration has also indicated its willingness to supply more weaponry to Iran’s main adversaries in the region: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.
At least one U.S. senator has sharply criticized the idea, but in a statement on May 24 Pompeo said the administration would bypass legislators and move forward with the weapons sales.
"These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said in a statement.