US piles pressure on Iran with new troop deployments

This image released on June 17, 2019 by the US Department of Defense is presented as new evidence incriminating Iran in the June 13 tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: China and Russia warned Tuesday about escalating Middle East tensions after Washington said it would deploy 1,000 more troops to the region and renewed accusations that Iran was behind a tanker attack.

The US moves came as Iran set a 10-day countdown for world powers to fulfil their commitments under a nuclear deal abandoned by Washington, saying it would otherwise surpass the uranium stockpile limit mandated by the accord.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have escalated ever since the US quit the deal, with Washington bolstering its military presence in the region and blacklisting Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation.

On Monday, Washington further upped the ante.

“I have authorised approximately 1,000 additional troops for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East,” acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan said in a statement.

“The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behaviour by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region,” Shanahan said.

The United States has blamed Iran for last week’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a charge Tehran denies as “baseless.”

New tanker attack images

The Pentagon released new images on Monday that it said showed Iran was behind the attack on one of the ships.

The US argument centres on an unexploded limpet mine on the Kokuka Courageous tanker ship that it says was removed by Iranians on a patrol boat.

“Iran is responsible for the attack based on video evidence and the resources and proficiency needed to quickly remove the unexploded limpet mine,” the Pentagon said in a statement accompanying the imagery.

The US released a grainy black and white video last week it said showed the Iranians removing the mine, but has not provided an explanation for why they allegedly did so while the US military was in the area.

The images released Monday show the site where the unexploded mine was allegedly attached, the Iranians on a patrol boat who are said to have removed it, and damage from another device that did explode.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged all sides “to show restraint.”

“We would prefer not to see any steps that could introduce additional tensions in the already unstable region,” he told journalists.

And China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned all sides “not to take any actions to provoke the escalation of tension in the region, and not to open a Pandora’s box.”

He urged Washington to “change its practice of extreme pressure” but also called on Tehran not to abandon the nuclear agreement “so easily.”

Iran countdown

Iran’s atomic energy organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said Monday that the country would soon pass the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the nuclear deal.

“The countdown to pass the 300 kilograms reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days’ time… we will pass this limit,” Kamalvandi said.

The move “will be reversed once other parties live up to their commitments,” he added.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus responded that the world “should not yield to nuclear extortion.”

President Hassan Rouhani announced on May 8 that Iran would stop observing restrictions on its stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water agreed under the deal, in retaliation for the unilateral US withdrawal.

He said the ultimatum was intended to “save the (deal), not destroy it.”

On Tuesday, he reiterated in a speech that Tehran was committed to the nuclear deal and said there was “no one in the world that does not praise Iran.”

“Iran has been loyal to its signature, Iran has been loyal to international agreements,” he added.

Tehran has warned it will further scaling down nuclear commitments by July 8 unless remaining partners to the deal – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – help it circumvent US sanctions and sell its oil.

European leaders have urged Iran to stick to the deal, with French President Emmanuel Macron urging it “to behave in a way that is patient and responsible.”

Under the agreement, Iran pledged to reduce its nuclear capacities for several years and allow international inspectors inside the country to monitor its activities in return for relief from international sanctions.

The deal set a limit on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges, and restricted its right to enrich uranium to no higher than 3.67%, well below weapons-grade levels of around 90%.

It also called on Iran to export enriched uranium and heavy water to ensure the country’s reserves would stay within the production ceiling set by the agreement, yet recent US restrictions have made such exports virtually impossible.

Uranium enriched to much higher levels than Iran’s current stocks can be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, while heavy water is a source of plutonium, which can be used as an alternative way to produce a warhead.