US to send more troops to Middle East

The Pentagon is sending about 1,000 additional American troops to the Middle East, as commanders try to bolster security for forces and allies in the region from what authorities say is a growing threat from Iran.

Officials said the deployment includes security forces and troops for additional surveillance and intelligence gathering in the region.

The troops are part of a broader military package of options that were initially laid out to US leaders late last month, totalling as much as 10,000 forces, Patriot missile batteries, aircraft and ships.

The latest decision comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials reach out to leaders in Asia and Europe to convince them that Iran was behind alleged attacks on shipping along a Middle East oil route.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi (Vahid Salemi/AP)</figcaption>
Spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi (Vahid Salemi/AP)

In announcing the new deployment, acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan said the forces are “for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East.”

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” Mr Shanahan said.

“The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests.” He added that the US will continue to adjust troop levels as needed.

Earlier, Iran announced it will exceed the uranium stockpile limit set by Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in the next 10 days, further escalating tensions in the Middle East.

The announcement by Iran’s nuclear agency marked yet another deadline set by Tehran.

President Hassan Rouhani already has warned Europe that a new deal needs to be in place by July 7 or the Islamic Republic would increase its enrichment of uranium.

Atomic energy spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi suggested that Iran’s enrichment could reach up to 20%, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.

It appears as if Iran has begun its own maximum pressure campaign on the world after facing one from US president Donald Trump’s administration that deeply cut into its sale of crude oil abroad and sent its economy into freefall.

Europe has so far been unable to offer Iran a way around the US sanctions.

The development follows apparent attacks last week in the Strait of Hormuz on oil tankers, assaults that Washington has blamed on Iran.

While Iran has denied being involved, it laid mines in the 1980s targeting oil tankers around the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of the world’s crude oil passes.

“If this condition continues, there will be no deal” anymore, Mr Kamalvandi said.

He accused the Europeans of “killing time” as the clock runs down.

Mr Rouhani, greeting France’s new ambassador to Tehran on Monday, similarly warned that time was running out on the deal.

“The current situation is very critical and France and the other parties to the (deal) still have a very limited opportunity to play their historic role for saving the deal,” Mr Rouhani said, according to his website.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'> Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit in the next 10 days, a spokesman for the country’s atomic agency said (Hamid Foroutan/ISNA via AP)</figcaption>
 Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit in the next 10 days, a spokesman for the country’s atomic agency said (Hamid Foroutan/ISNA via AP)

The Iranian announcement appeared timed to strike just as European foreign ministers met in Luxembourg.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, declined to specifically address the Iranian announcement.

“At the moment, as of today, Iran is still technically compliant and we strongly hope, encourage and expect that Iran continues to comply,” Ms Mogherini told journalists.

She insisted she would await the next report on the issue from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Under terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300kg (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium.

Mr Kamalvandi said that given Iran’s recent decision to quadruple its production of low-enriched uranium, it would pass the 300kg limit on Thursday June 27.

The Vienna-based IAEA said last month that Iran remained within its stockpile limits and declined to comment on Iran’s announcement.

Mr Kamalvandi said Iran would continue to allow the UN to inspect its nuclear facilities for the time being.

He also raised the spectre of increasing its enrichment levels, saying Iran needs 5% enriched uranium for its nuclear power plant in southern Iranian port of Bushehr and 20% enriched fuel for its Tehran research reactor.

It doesn't surprise anybody and this is why the president has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a better deal.

The nuclear deal limits Iran to enriching uranium only to 3.67%, enough for power plants and other peaceful purposes.

But after America pulled out of the nuclear accord and escalated sanctions, Mr Rouhani set a July 7 deadline for Europe to come up with better terms for the deal or Tehran would boost enrichment further.

So far, a European mechanism called INSTEX to protect trade with Iran has yet to take off.

The danger, nuclear non-proliferation experts warn, is that at 20% enrichment, only a fraction of atoms need to be removed to enrich up to weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Iran maintains its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, but the 2015 deal grew out of Western concerns about the programme.

Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Since Mr Trump took office, the US has steadily stripped away at the accord, and he pulled America out of the deal in May 2018.

However, Iran’s announcement that it was on the verge of surpassing the uranium-stockpile limit set by the nuclear agreement put the US is the awkward position of having to push Iran to abide by the deal Mr Trump has disparaged.

“It’s unfortunate that they have made this announcement today,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

“It doesn’t surprise anybody and this is why the president has often said that the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) needs to be replaced with a better deal.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the international community should reinstate sanctions if Iran follows through on its threats, adding: “In any case, Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”

- Press Association

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