Middle East tensions take an ominous turn

Plumes of smoke rise in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. (Reuters pic)

ISTANBUL: The specter of conflict in the Middle East is back.

The US has ordered non-emergency staff out of Iraq, just a week after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo traveled there to discuss escalating regional tensions with Iran.

It follows the US closure of its consulate in the southern city of Basra in September where it also cited threats from Iran, which supports powerful Shiite Muslim militias in its neighbor.

Fractures have widened in the past month over President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, with Tehran threatening to also pull out of the agreement designed to stop it enriching uranium for potential nuclear weapons.

There have been attacks on Saudi tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, a key global oil-trading route. Trump has put Iran’s oil-dependent economy under further pressure, withdrawing waivers that let Tehran trade some of its oil.

Trump has repeatedly stated his desire to keep the U.S. out of fresh wars, and spoken of the heavy cost the U.S. has borne in the past from having soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yesterday he denied a New York Times report that the U.S. had updated its military planning on Iran. But he added if hostilities were to break out he’d send ‘a hell of a lot more’ troops than the 120,000 mentioned.