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To respond to Iran, U.S. will deploy more troops and sell more weapons to Middle East

The Trump administration took two significant steps Friday to counter what it calls an escalated threat level from Iran. The U.S. will deploy 1,500 additional troops and military equipment to the Middle East, as well as sell additional arms to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. The latter action entails a rarely used executive power to bypass Congress. Judy Woodruff talks to Nick Schifrin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Trump administration took two significant steps to counter what it says is an escalated threat from Iran. The U.S. will deploy additional troops and military equipment to the Middle East.

    And the administration went around Congress to sell additional arms to Saudi Arabia.

    To put these moves into context, I'm joined by our Nick Schifrin.

    So, hello, Nick.

    First of all, what are they talking about deploying?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They're talking about 1,500 additional troops in four categories, an additional fighter squadron to the Middle East, extending the deployment of a Patriot missile battery that's already in the region, increasing intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance.

    It's things like drones to monitor Iran and its proxies. And engineers to strengthen bases in the region. And defense officials I talk to say, they looked around the region, and they say they're actually at a lower posture than they were a few years ago, and that Iran has some advantages in the region.

    So they felt like they had to reinforce. And they insist that this is defensive, that they are responding to Iranian actions, and that their goal is not to fight Iran, but instead to get Iran back to the negotiating table.

    And you talked with Senator Tim Cotton of Arkansas — Tom Cotton — sorry — of Arkansas just a few minutes ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And he echoed that statement.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.:

    I believe it's the right steps to increase our force posture in the Middle East. The intelligence coming from the Middle East and the rising threat that Iran might take imminent action against U.S. personnel or a facility has been compelling.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So that is the argument by people like Tom Cotton and the Pentagon.

    What Iran says is that this is not defensive. A fighter squadron, they say, is not defensive. And Iran — and also congressional Democrats are saying that this is unnecessary and increases the chances of some kind of conflict.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, clearly, Nick, there have been questions about, what's the intelligence? What's the provocation here? What did the administration say today about what actions Iran has taken that they're responding to?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    They went further today than they had. And they actually said that recent attacks by Iran in the Middle East — quote — "stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest level."

    So they are accusing Iran's leaders of attacking U.S. allies in the region over the last two weeks. Democrats have said, well, wait a minute, we actually have seen some of that intelligence. We're not sure it says exactly what you think it does. And some Democrats are even saying, hey, this sounds like 2003. This sounds like the run-up of the war to Iraq, when, of course, the intelligence turned out to be bogus.

    And we challenged the Pentagon that. The reporters who were in the room said, hey, wait a minute, prove all of this intelligence is the case.

    And listen to what the director of the Joint Staff, Vice Admiral Michael Gilday, had to say.

  • Question:

    What do you have to backup your case?

  • Vice Adm. Michael Gilday:

    I'm not reverse-engineering this. The Iranians — the Iranians have said publicly they were going to do things. We learn more through intelligence reporting. They have acted upon those threats.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so that's what they said. When we asked them, can we have some more intelligence, they said, no, that would imperil their sources and methods.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very interesting.

    So all this on the same day, Nick, as the administration announces it is selling more arms to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    So these are arms sales that had been blocked for months by the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey. What he had said is that he was worried that Saudi Arabia would use these weapons in Yemen.

    Yemen, there are Houthi rebels who are fighting Saudi Arabia and backed by Iran, but there are also tens of thousands of civilians who have been caught up in that war and who have been casualties in that war, mostly because of these bombs dropped by the Saudi-led coalition.

    Now, what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today, he said, no, there's an emergency and that we had to — quote — "deter the malign influence of Iran," go around that block and sell these arms to Congress.

    Those who support these sales say, look, if we sell these weapons to Saudi Arabia, they will get better at targeting their targets in Yemen, and therefore will avoid civilian casualties. But the critics say, wait a minute, Saudi Arabia has already had these weapons. We're just replenishing more of them, and more civilians will die.

    And that's what we saw from Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in a statement this afternoon. He said: "President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of the sale. There is no new emergency reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen. And doing so will only perpetuate the humanitarian crisis there." And he added: "This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress."

    So, bottom line, we see two decisions, deployments to the Middle East and also arms sales from offices, by the way, that aren't not usually coordinated, and that are not connected. But the administration made these two announcements almost simultaneously to make the point, we are going to continue to confront Iran. They say it's effective deterrence.

    Critics say this is going to increase the chances of conflict.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But going around normal congressional prerogative in order to do this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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