At a meeting of US President Donald 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, The New York Times said in a report.
The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, The New York Times said, quoting administration officials as saying.
The development reflects the influence of 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 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, Trump said: “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.”
According to the newspaper, 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.
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 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.