Iran Threat Debate Is Set Off by Images of Missiles at Sea

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the United States Embassy in Baghdad earlier this year. The order for a partial evacuation of the embassy adds to the rising tensions between the United States and Iran.

By Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt, Nicholas Fandos and Edward Wong


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the United States Embassy in Baghdad earlier this year. The order for a partial evacuation of the embassy adds to the rising tensions between the United States and Iran.CreditCreditAndrew Caballero-Reynolds/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


WASHINGTON — The intelligence that caused the White House to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran came from photographs of missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf that were put on board by Iranian paramilitary forces, three American officials said.

Overhead imagery showed fully assembled missiles, stoking fears that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships. Additional pieces of intelligence picked up threats against commercial shipping and potential attacks by Arab militias with Iran ties on American troops in Iraq.

But just how alarmed the Trump administration should be over the new intelligence is a subject of fierce debate among the White House, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and America’s allies.

The photographs presented a different kind of threat than previously seen from Iran, said the three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about it publicly. Taken with the other intelligence, the photographs could indicate that Iran is preparing to attack United States forces. That is the view of John R. Bolton, President Trump’s hard-line national security adviser, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

But other officials — including Europeans, Iraqis, members of both parties in Congress and some senior officials within the Trump administration — said Iran’s moves might mostly be defensive against what Tehran believes are provocative acts by Washington.

Either way, the questions about the underlying intelligence, and complaints by lawmakers that they had not been briefed on it, reflect a deep mistrust of Mr. Trump’s national security team.
Working off the new intelligence, the State Department on Wednesday ordered a partial evacuation of the United States Embassy in Baghdad and a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that one senior American official said was an overreaction to the intelligence and could possibly do more to endanger diplomats than to keep them safe.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, in a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, criticized the administration’s lack of transparency on the intelligence, according to a Democratic aide. Ms. Pelosi also said that the administration must consult Congress before taking any action.


Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer both raised concerns over the lack of transparency from the Trump administration about the new threats from Iran.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times


Ms. Pelosi spoke hours after the evacuation of embassy personnel was ordered by Mr. Pompeo, who as a congressman was one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s handling of the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic mission and annex in Benghazi, Libya.

But the senior American official said Mr. Pompeo was overreacting, and Iraqi officials said the threat level portrayed in the intelligence was not urgent enough.

Intelligence officials are set to meet on Thursday with senior congressional leaders for a briefing on the new intelligence about Iran. Nine American national security and congressional officials discussed the intelligence and the closed-door talks about it on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about them publicly.

Until recently, American government officials had said that Iran was continuing its usual support to Arab militias in the region, but was not seeking a fight.

That shifted with the new intelligence on May 3, changing the Pentagon’s assessment of the immediacy of the threat. Reacting to that information, the military’s Central Command asked that an aircraft carrier and bombers be sent to the Persian Gulf, rebuilding a show of deterrent force that some officials believed had been eroded by recent troop drawdowns.

On May 5, the White House sent Mr. Bolton to announce that the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln would sail to the gulf sooner than expected. Choosing Mr. Bolton, who is a longtime advocate of regime change in Iran, to deliver that message fueled skepticism among allies and congressional Democrats.

As military officials struggled to show that the threat from Iran was growing, intelligence officials declassified a photograph of one of the small boats, called dhows, carrying what was described as a functional Iranian missile.

The Pentagon has not released the photograph. On its own, two American officials said, the photograph was not compelling enough to convince the American public and lawmakers, or foreign allies, of the new Iranian threat. But releasing other supporting images could compromise secret sources and methods of collecting intelligence, the officials said.


Mohammad Bagheri, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran last month in Tehran.CreditAbedin Taherkenareh/EPA, via Shutterstock


The other photographs, which remain classified, show the Revolutionary Guards loading missiles onto the boats at several Iranian ports, the two American officials said. It is believed the boats are under the Revolutionary Guards’s control.

CNN first reported that Iranian missiles were being moved onto ships last week. But new details have emerged in recent days, and American officials have concluded that Iran did not intend to transfer the weapons to a foreign militia.

Combined with other intelligence, the photographs signaled a troubling Iranian mobilization of forces that officials said put American ships, bases and commercial vessels at risk.

Adding to that concern, the United States recently learned of conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq. The conversations themselves are nothing new, but the recent discussions were held with unusual frequency and included specifics about strikes on American targets.

American officials said they have also collected intelligence about Iran targeting commercial shipping, prompting a warning to mariners issued last Friday. That was one of the reasons that led American officials to suspect Iran was behind this week’s sabotage of four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The officials said they do not have conclusive forensic analysis that shows Iran was to blame.

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