WASHINGTON — At a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.
The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. It does not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.
The development reflects the influence of Mr. Bolton, one of the administration’s most virulent Iran hawks, whose push for confrontation with Tehran was ignored more than a decade ago by President George W. Bush.
It is highly uncertain whether Mr. Trump, who has sought to disentangle the United States from Afghanistan and Syria, ultimately would send so many American forces back to the Middle East.
It is also unclear whether the president has been briefed on the number of troops or other details in the plans. On Monday, asked about if he was seeking regime change in Iran, Mr. Trump said: “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.”
There are sharp divisions in the administration over how to respond to Iran at a time when tensions are rising about Iran’s nuclear policy and its intentions in the Middle East.
Some senior American officials said the plans, even at a very preliminary stage, show how dangerous the threat from Iran has become. Others, who are urging a diplomatic resolution to the current tensions, said it amounts to a scare tactic to warn Iran against new aggressions.
European allies who met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said that they worry that tensions between Washington and Tehran could boil over, possibly inadvertently.
More than a half-dozen American national security officials who have been briefed on details of the updated plans agreed to discuss them with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity. Spokesmen for Mr. Shanahan and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to comment.
The size of the force involved has shocked some who have been briefed on them. The 120,000 troops would approach the size of the American force that invaded Iraq in 2003.
Deploying such a robust air, land and naval force would give Tehran more targets to strike, and potentially more reason to do so, risking entangling the United States in a drawn out conflict. It also would reverse years of retrenching by the American military in the Middle East that began with President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011.
But two of the American national security officials said Mr. Trump’s announced drawdown in December of American forces in Syria, and the diminished naval presence in the region, appear to have emboldened some leaders in Tehran and convinced the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that the United States has no appetite for a fight with Iran.
Several oil tankers were attacked or sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates over the weekend, raising fears that shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf could become flash points. “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens,” Mr. Trump said on Monday, asked about the episode.
Emirati officials are investigating the apparent sabotage, and American officials suspect that Iran was involved. Several officials cautioned, however, that there is not yet any definitive evidence linking Iran or its proxies to the attacks. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman called it a “regretful incident,” according to a state news agency.
In Brussels, Mr. Pompeo met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as well as with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. He did not speak to the media, but the European officials said they had urged restraint upon Washington, fearing accidental escalation that could lead to conflict with Iran.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” said Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary.
The Iranian government has not threatened violence recently, but last week, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would walk away from parts of the 2015 nuclear deal it reached with world powers. Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement a year ago, but European nations have urged Iran to stick with the deal and ignore Mr. Trump’s provocations.
The high-level review of the Pentagon’s plans was presented during a meeting about broader Iran policy. It was held days after what the Trump administration described, without evidence, as new intelligence indicating that Iran was mobilizing proxy groups in Iraq and Syria to attack American forces.
As a precaution, the Pentagon has moved an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers, a Patriot missile interceptor battery and more naval firepower to the gulf region.
At last week’s meeting, Mr. Shanahan gave an overview of the Pentagon’s planning, then turned to General Dunford to detail various force options, officials said. The uppermost option called for deploying 120,000 troops, which would take weeks or months to complete.
Among those attending Thursday’s meeting were Mr. Shanahan; Mr. Bolton; General Dunford; Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director; and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.
“The president has been clear, the United States does not seek war with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said Monday in an email. “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we are ready to defend U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”
The reduction of forces in the Middle East in recent years has been propelled by a new focus on China, Russia and a so-called Great Powers competition. The most recent National Defense Strategy — released before Mr. Bolton joined the Trump administration — concluded that while the Middle East remains important, and Iran is a threat to American allies, the United States must do more to ensure a rising China does not upend the world order.
As recently as late April, an American intelligence analysis indicated that Iran had no short-term desire to provoke a conflict. But new intelligence reports, including intercepts, imagery and other information, have since indicated that Iran was building up its proxy forces’ readiness to fight and was preparing them to attack American forces in the region.
The new intelligence reports surfaced on the afternoon of May 3, Mr. Shanahan told Congress last week. On May 5, Mr. Bolton announced the first of new deployments to the Persian Gulf, including bombers and an aircraft carrier.
It is not clear to American intelligence officials what changed Iran’s posture. But intelligence and Defense Department officials said American sanctions have been working better than originally expected, proving far more crippling to the Iranian economy — especially after a clampdown on all oil exports that was announced last month.
Also in April, the State Department designated the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization over objections from Pentagon and intelligence officials who feared reprisals from the Iranian military.
While much of the new intelligence appears to have focused on Iran readying its proxy forces, officials said they believed the most likely cause of a conflict will follow a provocative act, or outright attack, by the Revolutionary Guards’ navy. The Guards’ fleet of small boats has a history of approaching American Navy ships at high speed. Revolutionary Guards commanders have precarious control over their ill-disciplined naval forces.
Part of the updated planning appears to focus on what military action the United States might take if Iran resumes its nuclear fuel production, which has been frozen under the 2015 agreement. It would be difficult for the Trump administration to make a case that the United States was under imminent nuclear peril; Iran shipped 97 percent of its fuel out of the country in 2016, and currently does not have enough to make a bomb.
That could change if Iran resumes enriching uranium. But it would take a year or more to build up a significant quantity of material, and longer to fashion it into a weapon. That would allow, at least in theory, plenty of time for the United States to develop a response — like a further cutoff of oil revenues, covert action or military strikes.
The previous version of the Pentagon’s war plan included a classified subset code-named Nitro Zeus, a cyberoperation that called for unplugging Iran’s major cities, it power grid and its military.
The idea was to use cyberweapons to paralyze Iran in the opening hours of any conflict, in hopes that it would obviate the need to drop any bombs or conduct a traditional attack. That plan required extensive presence inside Iran’s networks — called “implants” or “beacons” — that would pave the way for injecting destabilizing malware into Iranian systems.
Two officials said those plans have been constantly updated in recent years.
But even a cyberattack, without dropping bombs, carries significant risk. Iran has built up a major corps of its own, one that successfully attacked financial markets in 2012, a casino in Las Vegas and a range of military targets. American intelligence officials told Congress in January that Iranian hackers are now considered sophisticated operators who are increasingly capable of striking United States targets.
Since Mr. Bolton became national security adviser in April 2018, he has intensified the Trump administration’s policy of isolating and pressuring Iran. The animus against Iran’s leaders dates back at least to his days as an official in the George W. Bush administration. Later, as a private citizen, Mr. Bolton called for military strikes on Iran, as well as regime change.
The newly updated plans were not the first time during the Trump administration that Mr. Bolton has sought military options to strike Iran.
This year, Defense Department and senior American officials said Mr. Bolton sought similar guidance from the Pentagon last year, after Iranian-backed militants fired three mortars or rockets into an empty lot on the grounds of the United States Embassy in Baghdad in September.
In response to Mr. Bolton’s request, which alarmed Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, the Pentagon offered some general options, including a cross-border airstrike on an Iranian military facility that would have been mostly symbolic.
But Mr. Mattis and other military leaders adamantly opposed retaliation for the Baghdad attack, successfully arguing that it was insignificant.
(Reporting by The New York Times)
Trump Signs Executive Order To Protect US Networks From Foreign Espionage
Amid a deepening trade war with China, President Trump on Wednesday declared a “national emergency” to protect U.S. communications networks in a move that gives the federal government broad powers to bar American companies from doing business with certain foreign suppliers — including the Chinese firm Huawei.
Trump declared the emergency in the form of an executive order that says foreign adversaries are exploiting vulnerabilities in U.S. telecom technology and services. It singles out economic and industrial espionage as areas of particular concern.
“The President has made it clear that this Administration will do what it takes to keep America safe and prosperous, and to protect America from foreign adversaries who are actively and increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology infrastructure and services in the United States,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The order authorizes the commerce secretary to block transactions involving communications technologies built by firms controlled by a foreign adversary that puts U.S. security at “unacceptable” risk — or poses a threat of espionage or sabotage to networks that underpin the day-to-day running of vital public services.
Wednesday’s announcement was expected nearly a year ago, and comes as neither Washington nor Beijing appears willing to back down in their ongoing economic dispute. The National Economic Council, which had blocked the move for months, dropped its objection as trade talks hit an impasse, said one official.
Trump’s executive order does not immediately exclude any specific firms or countries, but certainly will not lessen tensions with Beijing. It is consistent with Trump’s increasingly aggressive tack against China in which he has used tariffs as economic weapons, a tactic that he believes to be popular with his political base.
The move also boosts the administration’s somewhat uphill effort to persuade allies and partners in Europe to bar Huawei, which officials say is beholden to the Chinese government, from their next-generation 5G wireless networks.
The order is not restricted to any one technology, such as 5G, but instead covers a swath of information communications technologies. That could invite a legal challenge from companies who believe it is overly broad, officials and analysts say.
Trump declared the emergency under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a 1977 law used by every president since Jimmy Carter to impose sanctions on countries such as Iran or Russia. It gives the president broad authority over economic activity.
Trump’s executive order instructs the commerce secretary to develop an enforcement regime and permits the secretary to name companies or technologies that could be barred, according to officials.
Should that happen, said Paul Rosenzweig, a former homeland security official in the George W. Bush administration, the banned firm “would assuredly sue.” Rosenzweig, now a senior fellow with the R Street Institute, a policy group that advocates free markets, said that congressional action to bar a specific firm likely would have a better chance at withstanding legal scrutiny.
The order acknowledges that, although an open investment climate is generally positive, the United States needs to do more to protect the security of its networks. The idea is to have an “in case of emergency, break glass” authority, said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the order before it was released.
And though the president already may veto proposed acquisitions of American companies by foreign buyers if he believes they endanger national security, the government lacks the authority to intervene in specific transactions deemed to pose such a risk.
“There are other levers we have, based more on contracting influence and power of the purse, but this would be more of an explicit exclusionary authority,” said an official familiar with the matter.
Last year Trump signed a law that barred the federal government and its contractors from doing business with Huawei and several other Chinese firms on national security grounds. And the country’s four major telecom carriers have committed to the federal government that they will not use Huawei equipment in their networks.
But this order, once implemented, would establish a national policy applying to commercial entities outside the U.S. government and permits the commerce secretary to name the countries and organizations subject to the restrictions, as well as the technologies at issue. The order also would permit the secretary to direct the timing and manner of how U.S. firms would cease using such equipment, officials said.
A number of rural carriers use Huawei in their networks as a lower-cost alternative to European firms such as Nokia and Ericsson. The Federal Communications Commission is preparing a rule that likely would restrict federal subsidies to carriers that use Huawei gear and the rural carriers have told the government that replacing Huawei is a cost they cannot afford.
A number of European officials in recent months have expressed consternation that the United States is pressing them to block Huawei from their planned 5G networks while not having officially banned the firm. This order helps counter that objection, officials said.
Security officials say the issue is one of national security, not trade. But the two inevitably have become linked as China’s quest to dominate advanced technologies in the global market has prompted significant concerns about the potential for espionage or sabotage.
Trump, unlike most previous presidents, has frequently relied on national security arguments in his bid to reshape U.S. trading relationships, demonstrating a willingness to stretch legal authorities beyond their customary bounds.
Last year, for instance, he cited a little-used national security provision of a 1962 law to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. He also has ordered the Commerce Department to investigate doing the same on foreign-made automobiles and auto parts.
The national emergency declaration comes a day after a congressional hearing in which senators from both parties joined administration officials in calling out the risks of doing business with a company like Huawei. They emphasized that the problem was less about the company than the authoritarian country whose system of laws, which lacks due process and transparency, it must obey.
“It’s not about overseeing Huawei. It’s about overseeing China,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the hearing on 5G security.
“This is a single-party government,” said Christopher Krebs, director of the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. “Everything that flows from the central party is a manifestation of their philosophy.’
(Reporting by The Washington Post)
Up To 70 Migrants Drown After Boat Capsizes Off Tunisia
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — As many as 70 migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya drowned Friday when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, and at least 16 other people from the boat were rescued, according to U.N. migration officials and Tunisia’s state news agency.
The International Organization for Migration called it the deadliest migrant boat sinking since January. The drownings happened as migrant arrivals to Europe are decreasing.
The smuggling boat left Libya on Thursday and sent a distress signal in international waters early Friday off the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, according to an IOM official in Tunisia and a statement from Tunisia’s Defense Ministry. Between 60 and 70 people drowned, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to give details about the emergency and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Three bodies have been recovered, the Defense Ministry said.
Tunisian state news agency TAP said 70 people drowned as the boat sank and that fishing boats rescued 16 others.
The survivors of the sinking are now being questioned and cared for by Tunisian authorities, the IOM official said. She said they included people from Bangladesh and Morocco, among other nationalities.
Joel Millman, an IOM spokesman in Geneva, said the reported death toll is the largest number of migrants killed since a Jan. 19 sinking in which 117 people were reported missing and presumed dead.
So far this year, 17,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea, about 30 percent fewer than the 24,000 arriving during the same period last year, according to the IOM. It said 443 people have reportedly died on dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings so far this year, compared to 620 deaths for the same period in 2018.
Libya’s navy said Friday it rescued 213 Europe-bound African and Arab migrants off the Mediterranean coast this week. It said they were handed over to Libyan police after having received humanitarian and medical aid.
Lawless Libya in North Africa became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after an uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Libyan authorities have stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migrants, with European assistance.
But human rights groups have strongly criticized Libya for its detention centers, saying migrants being sent back to Libya faced hunger, beatings, torture, rapes and a lack of medical care.
In addition, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army launched an offensive against the government in the Libyan capital of Tripoli last month. The U.N. health agency says 443 people have died, 2,110 have been wounded and nearly 60,000 have been displaced by the violence.
Armed Assailant Takes Hostages At Toulouse-Area Convenience Store
PARIS (AP) — French police say an armed person has taken multiple hostages in a store on the outskirts of the southern city of Toulouse.
Authorities were not certain of the hostage-taker’s identity or how many people were being held.
Police special forces were en route to the convenience store in the town of Blagnac, near the Toulouse airport. A security perimeter has been set up and the local France 3 television says the hostage-taker has demanded to speak with a negotiator.
This story is developing, more updates to come…
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