True Start to U.S. vs. China Trade War

Doug Nolan

Let’s begin with the markets. Ten-year Treasury yields dropped eight bps this week to 2.39%, nearing the March 27th low (2.37%). Two-year yields fell seven bps to 2.20%, a 13-month low. German bund yields declined six bps to negative 0.10%, the low closing yield going back to September 2016. German two-year yields dipped another three bps to negative 0.65%. Swiss 10-year yields declined four bps to negative 0.40%, and Japanese 10-year yields slipped a basis point to negative 0.06%. Spanish 10-year yields at 0.88% and Portuguese yields at 1.05% make no sense whatsoever unless huge new ECB QE programs are in the offing. The market now prices a 75% probability of a Fed rate cut by December, up from the previous week’s 59%.

China’s renminbi dropped 1.38% versus the dollar this week to 6.9179, the low since November 30th (offshore renminbi at all-time lows). It’s worth noting that the renminbi is now only 1.2% from breaching the key psychological 7.00 level versus the dollar. Currencies were under pressure throughout Asia. The South Korean won declined 1.5%, the Singapore dollar 1.1%, the Taiwanese dollar 1.0%, the Philippine peso 1.0% and the Indonesian rupiah 0.9%. Weakness spread into EM more generally. The Brazilian real fell 3.5%, the South African ran 1.8%, the Hungarian forint 1.5%, the Chilean peso 1.5%, and the Colombian peso 1.0%.

For the most part, EM bond market calm endured. Problem child Lebanon saw local bond yields surged 24 bps to an almost five-month high 10.65%, with yields up 87 bps so far this month. More concerning, Brazil’s local (real) yields surged 31 bps to 9.09%, the highest level since March.

After somewhat stabilizing (courtesy of “national team” buying), Chinese equities this week resumed their descent. The Shanghai Composite dropped 1.9%, with the CSI Financials index down 2.7% and the ChiNext Index sinking 3.6%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index declined 1.3%, led lower by a 2.1% drop in the Hang Seng China Financials index. Stocks were down 2.5% in South Korea, 6.2% in Indonesia, 3.1% in Taiwan, 2.5% in Thailand and 1.3% in the Philippines. Brazil’s Ibovespa index sank 4.5%.

Though major U.S. equities indices ended the week down less than 1%, there’s a story to tell. Monday trading saw the S&P500 sink 2.4% (DJIA down 617 pts). The President began the morning with a tweet: “China should not retaliate - will only get worse! I say openly to President Xi & all of my many friends in China that China will be hurt very badly if you don’t make a deal because companies will be forced to leave China for other countries.” Less than two hours later, Beijing announced retaliatory tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods.

Markets rallied on Tuesday, nerves calmed by the President’s comment that the trade war with China was a mere “little squabble;” “We have a good dialogue going. It will always continue.” “When the time is right we will make a deal with China. It will all happen, and much faster than people think!” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that China and the U.S. had agreed to continue “pursuing relevant discussions.” Treasury Secretary Mnuchin suggested he was planning for a trip to China to resume negotiations.

May 15 – Associated Press (Yanan Wang and Sam McNeil): “What do tilapia, Jane Austen and Chinese revolutionary poster art have in common? All have been used to rally public support around China’s position in its trade dispute with the U.S., as the ruling Communist Party takes a more aggressive approach — projecting stability and stirring up nationalistic sentiment in the process. ‘If you want to negotiate, the door is open,’ anchor Kang Hui said Monday on state broadcaster CCTV. ‘If you want a trade war,’ however, he added, ‘we’ll fight you until the end.’ ‘After 5,000 years of wind and rain, what hasn’t the Chinese nation weathered?’ Kang said. The toughly-worded monologue on the banner evening news program followed days of muted official responses to President Donald Trump’s decision to hike tariffs…”

May 14 – Bloomberg: “Chinese President Xi Jinping denounced as ‘foolish’ foreign efforts to reshape other nations as he pushes back against U.S. trade demands. ‘To think that one’s own race and civilization are superior to others, and to insist on transforming or even replacing other civilizations, is foolish in understanding and disastrous in practice,’ Xi said… at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing… ‘The Chinese people’s beliefs are united and their determination as strong as a rock to safeguard national unity and territorial integrity, and defend national interests and dignity,’ Xi said Tuesday when meeting with visiting Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.”

By Wednesday morning, it was becoming increasingly clear that the “little squabble” was more than a little fib. China’s vice-premier Liu He had stated that China (negotiators and the Chinese people) would never “flinch” in the face of tariffs. After showing restraint over recent weeks, the Chinese media was unleashed. State media declared that China would “never surrender” to external pressure. And from the communist party’s People’s Daily: “At no time will China forfeit the country’s respect, and no one should expect China to swallow bitter fruit that harms its core interests.” CCTV’s “If you want a trade war, we’ll fight you until the end” video (from above) was quickly viewed more than 3.3 billion times.

U.S equities markets opened poorly Wednesday morning, quickly giving back much of Tuesday’s recovery. If Monday’s lows were to have been taken out, market technicals could have quickly turned problematic. Especially after the previous week’s instability, there were large quantities of put options outstanding in the marketplace. Had the markets weakened going into Friday’s expiration, there was a distinct possibility of intense self-reinforcing derivatives-related selling.

About 40 minutes after Wednesday’s open, Bloomberg reported that President Trump was preparing to offer the EU and Japan a six-month window to “limit or restrict” auto exports to the U.S. before imposing new tariffs. The S&P500 jumped as much as 1.4%, a rally that carried into Thursday’s session.

The auto tariff news came at a critical market juncture. Whether it was or wasn’t a coincidence hardly matters. At this point, markets have become quite enamored with the notion of Quadruple Puts – the Fed, Trump, Xi/Beijing and corporate buybacks. When historians look back at this period, they will surely be baffled by the markets’ capacity for disregarding major risks and negative developments. We’re at the stage of a historic - and especially protracted -cycle where it has repeatedly paid to ignore risk. Over time, the successful risk ignorers and dip buyers have ascended to the top. Risk-takers systematically rewarded; the cautious banished. And, once again, those that had recently purchased put options to hedge market risk were left unsatisfied.

The official announcement of the six-month delay in auto tariffs came Friday, along with news that the President was lifting tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum imports. The FT headline: “Trump Eases Trade Conflicts with US Allies.” Rallying markets were receptive to seemingly positive news – that is until a Friday afternoon report from CNBC (Kayla Tausche and Jacob Pramuk): “Negotiations between the U.S. and China appear to have stalled as both sides dig in after disagreements earlier this month. Scheduling for the next round of negotiations is ‘in flux’ because it is unclear what the two sides would negotiate…” One can assume the administration is now working to generate some positive news flow as it hunkers down for a tough fight with the Chinese.

The U.S./Chinese relationship was never going to end well. The lone superpower versus the rising superpower. Vastly different systems, cultures and values. And it would be such a different world these days if not for a decade (or three) of unprecedented global monetary stimulus – cheap (i.e. nearly free) finance that allowed the U.S. to run endless huge Current Account Deficits coupled with easy finance that bestowed upon the Chinese (the curse of) unlimited monetary resources for the most outrageous Credit and investment booms in history. I always expected markets would at some point put a kibosh to this perilous dynamic. It was instead the embittered U.S. electorate and the architect of “Make America Great Again.”

It sure appears as if the Rubicon has been crossed. Beijing has called out the dogs (i.e. state-controlled media) – and public anti-U.S. sentiments have been inflamed. I’ll assume they’re now executing a contingency plan some time in the making: Trump is the unreasonable and disrespectful bully. China will never again be disrespected and pushed around. President Xi - general secretary of the Communist Party, President of the People's Republic of China, chairman of the Central Military Commission, China's ‘Paramount Leader’ and revered ‘Core Leader’ – is precisely the great commander to confront the U.S. hegemon determined to repress China’s strength, advancement and rightful standing in the world.

It’s become difficult to envisage Trump and Xi exchanging pleasantries and doing beaming photo ops next month at the G-20 summit (June 28-29) in Osaka, Japan. President Trump has often touted his close personal relationship with China’s Xi, and the U.S. side seems to believe that a private meeting between the congenial leaders can get talks back on track (worked in Argentina!). Let’s ignore U.S. freedom of navigation voyages through the South China Sea; the administration cozying up with Taiwan; Secretary Pompeo meeting this Thursday with a pro-democracy leader in Hong Kong, etc. Let’s disregard the trail of condescending tweets. And Huawei.

May 16 – Bloomberg: “The Trump administration is pulling out the big guns in its push to slow China’s rise, with potentially devastating consequences for the rest of the world. The White House on Wednesday initiated a two-pronged assault on China: barring companies deemed a national security threat from selling to the U.S., and threatening to blacklist Huawei Technologies Co. from buying essential components. If it follows through, the move could cripple China’s largest technology company, depress the business of American chip giants from Qualcomm Inc. to Micron Technology Inc., and potentially disrupt the rollout of critical 5G wireless networks around the world.”

From CNBC: “Reacting to U.S actions on Huawei, China’s Commerce Ministry said in a statement, ‘We firmly oppose the act of any country to impose unilateral sanctions on Chinese entities based on its domestic laws, and to abuse export control measures while making ‘national security’ a catch-all phrase. We urge the US to stop its wrong practices.’”

My view is that China is adamantly opposed to the U.S.’s use of “unilateral sanctions.” The administration’s insistence on a sanction enforcement regime as integral to the trade deal was a red line the Chinese refused to cross. The U.S. doubled-down with sanctions on Huawei – and until proven otherwise I’ll assume both China’s and the U.S.’s positions have further hardened.

This is a critical juncture for China’s faltering Bubble. Fragilities are acute. The assumption is that China will now move aggressively with additional fiscal and monetary stimulus. Conversely, it’s not an inopportune time for Beijing to take some pain. They have a scapegoat – a villainous foreigner determined to contain China’s rising power. For Beijing, the greatest risk is that its population loses trust in the phenomenal communist party meritocracy.

As noted above, the Chinese renminbi dropped 1.4% this week versus the dollar – and is now just a little over 1% away from the key psychological 7.00 level. “China’s Central Bank Won’t Let Yuan Weaken Past 7 to the Dollar (Reuters’ Zheng Li and Kevin Yao): ’At present, rest assured they will certainly not let it break 7,’ a source told Reuters. A defense of the 7 level could help boost confidence in the currency and soothe investor fears about a sharp depreciation in the yuan… ‘Breaking 7 is beneficial to China because it can reduce some of the effects of tariff increases, but the impact on our renminbi confidence is negative and funds will flow out,’ the source said.”

“At present, rest assured…” Excluding its massive surplus with the U.S., China runs a significant trade deficit with the rest of the world. There’s a scenario where President Trump places hefty tariffs on all Chinese imports into the U.S., levies that over time would be expected to significantly reduce demand for Chinese goods. At the same time, a weakening renminbi would see China expend more for much of its imports. Keep in mind, as well, that Beijing’s current stimulus measures are further fueling its apartment Bubble and resulting consumption boom. It’s possible that China’s trade position is poised to radically deteriorate.

Let’s assume the PBOC does move to defend the 7.0 level (renminbi vs. $). Markets will instinctively test this support – while closely monitoring for indications of the scope of reserves (and forward contracts) expended in the process. And China (and the world) better hope reserves prove more resilient than back in 2015, when they proceeded to collapse by $580 billion over a twelve-month period. If China’s reserves begin to rapidly deplete, expect stringent capital control and other measures to stem outflows. And while everyone believes China will resort to fiscal and monetary stimulus until the cows come home, EM Crisis Dynamics invariably force authorities to tighten conditions to bolster currency and financial system stability.

Friday’s report on University of Michigan Consumer Confidence had consumer sentiment at a 15-year high. Consumer Expectations surged almost nine points to 96 (up from January’s 79.9), to the highest reading since January 2004 – and the second strongest reading going back to November 2000. With stock prices recently (May 1st) hitting record highs and the unemployment rate at 50-year lows, consumer optimism is not unreasonable.

Increasingly, it appears as if the respite from Q4 global market instability has about run its course. As an economy – from governments to corporations to households – I can’t imagine a more poorly prepared system for the gathering storm. I know: fundamentals are “sound” and the banking system is “well capitalized.” Besides, there’s the Quadruple Puts – a deeply entrenched market misperception that really concerns me. Complacency is pervasive – epically so. Ignore fundamental developments, while placing faith in the power of politicians and central bankers (and corporations forever enjoying access to cheap finance to fund buybacks). Such a backdrop creates extraordinary risk for an abrupt change in perceptions and resulting crisis of confidence – in policymakers and the markets.

We started with the markets and will end with the markets. At this point, I don’t see great contradictions between the markets: Safe haven bonds and the risk markets are not actually telling wildly different stories. Seeing low market yields, loose financial conditions, seemingly great underlying U.S. economic fundamentals and Quadruple Puts, highly speculative (trend-following and performance-chasing) markets have been behaving about as one would expect near the end of a historic cycle: an intense, overarching short-term focus on speculative market gains. The safe havens, much less concerned with timing, see speculative Bubbles primed for bursting. Treasuries, bunds, JGBs, Swiss bonds, etc. see an acutely fragile global market structure.

May 14 – Bloomberg (Steve Matthews): “Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Esther George said she’s opposed to cutting interest rates in order to raise inflation to the central bank’s 2% target, warning that could lead to asset-price bubbles and ultimately an economic downturn. ‘Lower interest rates might fuel asset price bubbles, create financial imbalances, and ultimately a recession,’ George… said… ‘In current circumstances, with an unemployment rate well below its projected longer-run level, I see little reason to be concerned about inflation running a bit below its longer-run objective.’”

Markets are not pricing in a 75% probability for a rate cut by December because of current Fed thinking. Chairman Powell is joined by sound thinkers including Esther George that recognize the risks associated with even looser monetary conditions. Markets are instead discerning the high probability of a market dislocation that would so significantly tighten financial conditions that the Fed and global central bankers will have no option other than cutting rates and resorting to more QE.

The breakdown in China/U.S. trade talks provides the initial catalyst. The 3.3% one-month decline in the renminbi (offshore renminbi down 3.9%) is indicative of acute vulnerability in the Chinese currency. And if PBOC support fails to stabilize the market, a crisis of confidence and run on Chinese assets cannot be ruled out. I don’t think one can overstate the financial, economic and geopolitical ramifications of China succumbing to Crisis Dynamics. The world becomes a much more uncertain place. Deleveraging in China would surely equate to global de-risking/deleveraging and highly destabilized global financial flows.

And for the crowd that these days harbors delusions of U.S. markets and economic activity largely immune to global issues, I pose the question: How do U.S. markets perform in the event of illiquidity and a “seizing up” of global markets? As I’ve posited before, the U.S. economy is extremely vulnerable to a dramatic market-induced tightening of financial conditions. What would markets look like if the marketplace turns against negative cash-flow enterprises? How would the U.S. economy function in the event of if debt market illiquidity?

The Powell U-turn granted markets four months of fun and games – and only greater systemic vulnerability. Now comes the downside, with a Fed that just might prove somewhat slower to come to the markets’ rescue than everyone presumes. This week marked the True Start to the U.S. vs. China Trade War. The degree of cluelessness is shocking.

Brutal Gold Futures Action Explains Last Week’s Big Price Decline

Just when it looked like gold futures — which still, unfortunately, dictate the price of physical precious metals — were ready to turn bullish, last week’s commitment of traders report (COT) revealed that commercial traders (usually right at big turns) had gone massively short while speculators (usually wrong at turning points) went aggressively long.

gold COT brutal gold futures

That kind of action usually precedes a price drop, and this time was no exception. On Thursday and Friday, gold fell from $1,294 to $1,277.

godl price brutal gold futures

Presumably, this flushed a bit of the bearish imbalance out of the futures market by forcing some speculator longs to cut their losses and allowing some commercial shorts to book profits. But it probably didn’t send the structure of the market all the way back to bullish. That will take another couple of weeks like the last one.

Meanwhile, gold seasonality has another couple of negative months to run. The following chart shows the average price action by month from 1975 through 2013. Note that June is the third weakest month, but that in July the trend turns positive and stays that way through February, mostly thanks to Asians buying precious metals for Spring wedding gifts.

gold seasonality brutal gold futures

So assuming no external shocks – admittedly a big assumption in a world of trade war with China and possible shooting wars in Iran, Syria, and Venezuela – history predicts at least one more boring month for gold.

Which is another way of saying June might offer some good entry points for precious metals and oversold mining stocks. The following table shows some high-quality miners and streaming companies getting cheaper in the past few months. They might become cheaper still in June:

gold stock prices brutal gold futures

The story, by the way, was pretty much the same at this time last year. See When Will Gold’s “Summer Doldrums” End? History Says Pretty Soon

Trade is just an opening shot in a wider US-China conflict

The current standoff is part of a struggle for global pre-eminence

Philip Stephens

The unnerving thing about America’s trade war against China is that it is just the start. Donald Trump is fixated on trade balances and tariffs. The US president hankers for the 1950s, when US industry swept aside all before it. Among the swelling community of China hawks in Washington, however, resetting the terms of trade is only an opening shot.

While American and Chinese negotiators were trying and failing to reach a trade deal last week, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, was visiting London. His message to Theresa May’s government? Allow China’s Huawei to build any of Britain’s next generation, or 5G, communications network and you can say goodbye to the special relationship.

Back in Washington, Mr Trump announced new measures to effectively ban Huawei from selling technology into the American market and may also prevent it from buying US semiconductors that are crucial for its production.

Six thousand miles away, US warships were steaming through the South China Sea. At the head of a small flotilla of Japanese, Philippine and Indian vessels, the US navy raised another banner. As much as China turns disputed rocks into military outposts to stake its claim to the waters, the US will respond with more freedom of navigation patrols.

Prominent Republicans, meanwhile, were lending support to a new anti-Beijing lobby group. The Committee on the Present Danger: China invokes the cold war against the Soviet Union. The Texan senator Ted Cruz, his colleague Marco Rubio from Florida, and Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, are among those echoing its warnings that China has started a new arms race.

Mr Trump says he hopes to patch something up on trade with Chinese president Xi Jinping when the two meet at the G20 summit in Japan next month. The China hawks have moved on from tariffs. They want essentially to decouple the two nations’ economies.

The president has leaned in this direction with tighter controls on Chinese investment in sensitive sectors of the US economy and new restrictions on Chinese students at US universities. Mr Trump’s answer to complaints that high tariffs are hitting US companies with plants in China is straightforward. Bring the production home. Disentangling American and Chinese supply chains would restore national independence.

Until quite recently, China was viewed as an economic competitor playing an unfair game. It cheated the system by manipulating trade and investment rules, forcing technology transfer from western partners and stealing intellectual property. In the US, the anger at such practices has been widely shared by Democrats as well as Republicans. Europeans have voiced the same irritation with China’s restrictive investment conditions and asymmetric trade rules.

The trade narrative is now being subsumed into a much more alarming one. Economics has merged with geopolitics. China, you can hear on almost every corner in sight of the White House and Congress, is not just a dangerous economic competitor but a looming existential threat. Beijing may not have the same ideological ambitions as the Soviet Union, but it does threaten US primacy. It needs more than a level playing field for trade to confront this challenge.

The shift was foreshadowed in Mr Trump’s National Security Strategy and in the National Defence Strategy produced by the Pentagon. “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda,” the first document says. As for the South China Sea: “China has mounted a rapid military modernisation campaign designed to limit US access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.”

The defence strategy aims to dispel any doubt. “For decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the postwar international order would liberalise China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China . . . is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own”. The goal, the Pentagon says, is, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future”.

The irony is that Mr Trump’s focus on the nuts and bolts of trade during 11 rounds of talks between Washington and Beijing, and his habit of showering compliments on Mr Xi, has obscured this profound shift in US policy.

Nothing stirs US neuralgia so much as technology. Beyond the temporary jolt delivered by losing the space race to the Soviet Union during the 1950s, the US has been consistently confident of its technological lead over adversaries.

No longer. At a recent gathering of US policymakers and experts, speaker after speaker took to the podium to voice fears that China is stealing a march in harnessing 5G digital technology and artificial intelligence applications to its military ambitions.

The danger in all this speaks for itself. Treating China as a certain enemy is a sure way to persuade Beijing that it should behave as such. Mistrust begets mistrust, which in turn could provide the spark for open conflict.

China is no innocent — witness the ever present cyber attacks on western militaries and vital infrastructure. But demonising everything it does simply opens up the path from a trade war to something much rougher. What the two nations need above all are common rules of the road to avoid escalation. Otherwise we are heading towards an altogether hotter war.

Long-term investing is a necessity as much as a choice

The long bull market and QE have led to a drastic change in thinking

Amin Rajan

Aston Martin executives celebrate the car group’s trading debut in October. The number of IPOs is falling in the UK and US (Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

John Maynard Keynes said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” The current late-cycle phase of the markets has led many pension plans to do likewise with regard to investment periods.

These funds have always been long-term investors with liabilities spanning many decades but the risk-on/risk-off cycles seen in the early 2010s elevated the sequence of returns risk — the time taken by a portfolio to recover after a big hit.

Since asset prices went up step by step but came down in the lift in that period, it was no longer possible to ignore large short-term losses just at a time when ageing memberships meant pension liabilities were fast maturing.

However, the fresh highs scored by the markets have turned the tables by increasing regret risk: sadness at missing out on what is the longest bull market in history with no reversal in sight.

Time in the market is now more important than timing the market. It necessarily means riding it out while the going is good but being prepared to extend holding periods to recover losses when the bears finally arrive.

Such an extension is evident in both the passive and active space, according to my recent surveys. Currently, 80 per cent of pension plans hold their traditional indexed funds for more than two years as part of their core portfolio. The corresponding figure for exchange traded funds is 45 per cent.

Similarly, 63 per cent of pension plans have a holding period of more than five years for their total equity portfolio and 64 per cent for their total bond portfolio. In all cases, the numbers are up lately and expected to rise over the next three years.

They range from pragmatists at one end, who think they have to accept today’s investing as it is, to believers at the other, who opine that it’s time to go back to basics. Indeed, on that spectrum sit four groups.

The first comprises momentum investors who hold that central banks’ quantitative easing has overinflated asset values by borrowing against future returns. It seems wise to go after juicy returns while they last and let time heal all wounds.

The second group is made up of long-suffering value investors who say that current asset valuations, distorted by QE, appear to be defying gravity. With or without policy unwinding, mean reversion will kick in, if history is a guide. The question is not if but when. The third comprises those keen to minimise that most silent of portfolio killer: implementation leakage. It has become all too clear that how asset allocation works on paper is one thing, what it delivers is quite another; the ex post returns rarely match the ex ante promises.

The implied leakage is due to a variety of factors, including style drift that results in unintended exposures, fees and charges that put a drag on returns, and overtrading that creates all manner of hidden costs and inefficiencies.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that simulations at the portfolio construction stage concentrate on asset choices. They do not take into account how investors’ own actions and reactions introduce new risks, as do the reactions of other investors as they weigh up new situations. Such feedback loops are nigh impossible to unravel, except perhaps in hindsight.

The final group comprises pension plans with strong governance and skillsets that have embraced long-term investing as a part of a new mantra: active ownership. Their view was recently articulated by Stuart Dunbar, the Baillie Gifford partner, in a provocative paper. According to Dunbar, “what passes for active management is simply the second-order trading of existing assets, with the main focus being to try to anticipate the behaviour of other investors. This has little to do with actual investing”.

Thus, equity markets are no longer conduits between savers planning for a decent nest-egg and borrowers who deploy savings to create wealth, jobs and skills. Mr Dunbar’s view is not only supported by the falling number of initial public offerings in the UK and US, but also by the fact that most of those that come to market aim primarily to help owners to cash out rather than raise capital for future growth.

The EU’s second Shareholder Rights Directive, effective from June, seeks to remedy the situation by strengthening the role of shareholders, enabling them to act like active owners rather than passive holders of paper assets. It promotes a new form of stewardship that is free of fads and clichés. Long-term investing is an idea whose time has come. It remains to be seen how it develops from now.

Amin Rajan is chief executive of Create-Research and a member of The 300 Club

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.