It’s been over a month since National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was deploying military assets to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran, and tensions only seem to be escalating with no resolution in sight.
President Donald Trump has said he doesn’t want war with Iran and that his only goal is to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But there are signs Iran is moving toward restarting its nuclear program as the top US commander in the Middle East warns there’s still a “very real” threat to US troops in the region from Iranian forces or proxies.
‘The threat is imminent’
The chief of US Central Command, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, on Thursday told NBC News, “I think the threat is imminent.”
“I don’t actually believe the threat has diminished…I believe the threat is still very real,” McKenzie added.
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The White House and Pentagon have been fairly vague on the specific nature of the threat posed to US forces in the Middle East as Iran has scoffed at the Trump administration’s various claims — including that it’s responsible for recent attacks on oil tankers in the region.
Iran: ‘Resisting the enemy’s excessive demands and bullying is the only way to stop him’
Meanwhile, as Trump has fluctuated between apocalyptic threats toward Tehran and suggesting the two countries sit down for talks, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has signaled Iran will not bend to the president’s maximum pressure campaign.
“Standing and resisting the enemy’s excessive demands and bullying is the only way to stop him,” Khamenei said in a speech on Tuesday.
Iran also recently dismissed an offer from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hold talks on its nuclear program with no preconditions, dismissed the offer as “word-play.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday suggested the solution to the impasse was for the US to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Iran says it was Trump that ‘left the negotiating table,’ not us
Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal last May, going against key US allies who warned that the move could open the door for Tehran to restart its nuclear program.
“The other side that left the negotiating table and breached a treaty should return to normal state,” Rouhani said, according to Reuters.
Rouhani also portrayed the Trump administration’s mixed messaging and offer of no conditions for talks as a sign of weakness: “The enemies sometimes say they have conditions for negotiations with Iran … but in recent weeks they said they have no conditions. They threatened us as if they were a military superpower, but now they say they do not seek a war.”
Read more:How the Trump administration got into a showdown with Iran that could lead to war
The JCPOA is designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions, but Trump contended the landmark Obama-era deal didn’t go far enough.
By pulling out of the pact, US allies and many foreign policy experts believe Trump has offered a path for hardliners in the Iranian government to take the reins and push the country in a more aggressive direction.
Along these lines, US lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have said the current tensions with Iran are a product of Trump’s decision-making.
In a recent interview with INSIDER, Murphy pointed to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and his designation of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization as the primary catalysts for the present situation.
Iran remains in compliance with the nuclear deal — for now
The UN’s nuclear watchdog recently said that Iran is still in compliance with the JCPOA, despite threats in May to stop adhering to portions of the deal in response to Washington’s maximum pressure campaign. But it also said that Iran was increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and heavy water.
Additionally, the UN’s atomic watchdog suggested that up to 33 more advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium more quickly had been installed, taking steps that could potentially put it in violation of the JCPOA’s terms.
In a conversation with INSIDER earlier this week, Robert Einhorn, who played a key role in shaping US policy on Iran’s nuclear program under the Obama administration, said that if Iran does restart its nuclear program “it will be in reaction to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign.”
Read more:Sen. Chris Murphy says Trump is blindly risking conflict with Iran and could spark a war even if he doesn’t want one
But Trump is not heeding such warnings, and on Friday his administration announced new sanctions against Iran, targeting its largest petrochemical company for supporting the IRGC. Simultaneously, in a letter to the UN that was made public on Friday, Iran complained that the US had “endangered international peace and security” by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions.
If it is Trump’s aim to avoid war and prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it’s unclear why he continues to take steps that appear to be working to the contrary.