U.S. Hard-line Stance on Iran Rattles Allies

As Trump’s national security team barrels toward a confrontation in the Persian Gulf, Europe is starting to balk.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks on a morning TV show from the grounds of the White House in Washington on May 9, 2018.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks on a morning TV show from the grounds of the White House in Washington on May 9, 2018. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Allies of the United States are starting to balk at the Trump administration’s military response to what it calls credible threats from Iran to U.S. troops in the Middle East, as fears mount that the United States is headed into another ill-advised conflict in the region.

While U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security team continues to send military hardware to the area, a senior British general leading coalition troops fighting the Islamic State told reporters at the U.S. Defense Department that he sees “no increased threat” from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.

The comments by U.K. Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of the anti-Islamic State coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve, drew a swift and damning response from U.S. Central Command.

The remarks “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” Centcom spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said via email. The coalition is “now at a high level of alert” as it continues to monitor “possibly imminent” threats to U.S. forces in Iraq, he added.

In response to the new threat, the State Department on Wednesday ordered all nonemergency U.S. government employees to evacuate, both at the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a last-minute trip to Iraq on May 7 to meet with top Iraqi officials and brief them on the situation.

The British Defense Ministry walked a fine line on Ghika’s comments on Wednesday, stressing that “his sole focus is the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State].”

The rare rebuke of an allied officer by the U.S. military, as well as Europe’s chilly reception of Pompeo during a recent visit and Spain’s decision to recall a frigate from the U.S. Navy strike group in the Persian Gulf, reflects growing tension between the United States and its allies over the administration’s hard-line stance against Tehran.

Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official, said European allies, already skeptical of Trump’s foreign policy, see disturbing parallels to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, especially since Trump’s hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, appears to be directing the administration’s approach to Iran.

“Allies are getting nervous about just what Bolton might cause to happen by accident,” Townsend said. “They remember that following the Americans blindly can get you engaged in a forever war.”

U.S. allies that have been fighting the Islamic State, in particular, are now balking at the possibility that they will get caught up in a skirmish with Tehran, Townsend added.

“It’s not popular in Europe to go die for Donald Trump,” he said.

Indeed, there are signs that the United States could be headed toward a confrontation, whether on purpose or by accident. The Pentagon is reportedly drawing up war plans, including a contingency that involves sending 120,000 troops to the region. While Trump called the report “fake news,” he signaled he could be convinced, immediately adding: “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops.”

Across the Atlantic, Pompeo’s push to rally Europeans around a stronger stance on Iran during a last-minute trip to Brussels on Monday appeared to fall short, underscoring a long-standing rift with Europe over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

From the get-go, top EU leaders seemed frustrated by Pompeo’s 11th-hour visit and just as concerned the United States was responsible for escalating tensions as Iran. “We were told during the night that [Pompeo] was planning to change his travel plans and to have a stopover here in Brussels,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, told reporters ahead of the secretary of state’s visit, which coincided with a regular meeting of EU ministers.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed unease about flaring tensions in the Gulf.

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” Hunt said.

Top Trump officials said the visit was a productive one, where Pompeo met with his British, French, German, and EU counterparts individually. (Though the Europeans reportedly rejected his request for a collective meeting to showcase a united front on the Iranian threat, citing scheduling conflicts.)

The United States and European allies “agree on much more than we disagree,” Pompeo’s envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, told reporters. “We share the same threat assessment.”

But recent moves by European allies suggest otherwise. Spain on Tuesday pulled the Mendez Nunez frigate from the naval group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Gulf because the United States is now focusing on Iran, rather than the agreed objective of celebrating a seafaring anniversary, acting Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters.

And Germany on Wednesday suspended its military training operations in Iraq due to increased regional tensions.

Following his visit to Brussels, Pompeo traveled to Russia, where he dismissed concerns the United States was trying to provoke Iran into starting a conflict but vowed to respond to any Iranian attack.

“We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran,” said Pompeo, speaking alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday. “But we’ve also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.”

Townsend warned that the political pressure in Washington could cause a dangerous escalation.

While former Defense Secretary James Mattis shielded Centcom and other combatant commands from political pressure during the first two years of the Trump administration, the environment has shifted, Townsend said. Mattis resigned in December, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford is nearing his retirement, and the new Centcom commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who spent years working on the Joint Chiefs, “knows how to read the political tea leaves,” Townsend noted.

“It’s Game of Thrones,” said Townsend. “You’ve got the president watching Bolton, you’ve got Bolton navigating what the Iranians may or may not do, Centcom is reacting to Bolton.

This makes it a really dangerous situation where if a mistake happens or an accident happens and an unintended consequence happens, the politically charged atmosphere could force a decision to be made that may not have been made otherwise.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer