A British general who appeared to dispute the White House on the threat posed by Iran was backed by a statement of support from his government Wednesday. It’s another sign of the growing rift between the U.S. and its allies over the issue of confronting Tehran.
Meanwhile, senators from both sides of the aisle demanded answers from the Trump administration on the nature of the threat that led the State Department on Wednesday to order the evacuation of non-emergency personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil in northern Iraq.
The "ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq is extremely limited" due to the current security situation, State Department officials said in an alert.
In a statement earlier Wednesday, Britain's Ministry of Defence said that British Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, deputy commander of the U.S. coalition in Iraq and Syria, was doing his job by giving his assessment that there is "no increased threat" to U.S. and allied troops in the region from Iran or its proxy militias.
Ghika's comments in a video briefing Tuesday to the Pentagon were "based on day-to-day military operations, and his sole focus is the enduring defeat of Daesh [ISIS]," the MOD statement said.
The MOD noted that Ghika also said that "there are a range of threats to American and coalition forces in this part of the world."
But that qualification didn’t stop U.S. Central Command, hours after Ghika spoke, from putting out its own statement rejecting his assessment.
Ghika's remarks "run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region," Navy Capt. Bill Urban, CENTCOM spokesman, said in a statement.
Urban added that U.S. and allied troops are on a high state of alert in Iran and Syria against a possible "imminent" attack from Iran or groups aligned with the Tehran regime.
The rare public dispute between the militaries of the U.S. and Britain reflects the growing unease of U.S. allies at the buildup of forces against Iran in the region, including the aircraft carrier Lincoln, B-52 Stratofortress bombers, Patriot air defense batteries and other assets.
On Tuesday, Spain announced that its guided-missile destroyer Mendes Nunez, which had been part of the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, was temporarily being withdrawn to avoid involvement in any confrontation with Iran.
The withdrawal of the frigate came about because "the U.S. government has taken a decision outside of the framework of what had been agreed with the Spanish Navy," acting Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters in Belgium, according to Reuters.
On Wednesday, following the State Department's order to withdraw non-essential personnel, Germany and the Netherlands announced that their troops in Iraq would suspend training missions with the Iraqi Security Forces and focus on their own protection, Reuters reported.
"There's zero appetite for any further escalation among the allies," retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Harmer, who served with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, told Military.com.
Allied support is vital to the success of U.S. operations, particularly at sea, but "they're not going to be dragged into anything with us" in a face-off with Iran, said Harmer, a former analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
"We're probably at an inflection point in post-Cold War relations with the allies," he said, adding that the buildup was inevitable given Iran's hostile actions in the region and the regime's support for anti-U.S. groups.
The main concern, given the buildup and the statements coming out of Tehran and Washington as the standoff continues, was that the U.S. could stumble into war by accident through miscalculation or the rogue action of a proxy group, said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official who is now an analyst with the Center for American Progress.
"That's the main thing to worry about: an accidental thing, given the rhetoric on both sides," he said.
The buildup began after White House National Security Adviser John Bolton issued statements on May 3 that U.S. intelligence had found evidence of Iran preparing attacks against U.S. interests in the region. He said that any attack would be met with "unrelenting force."
At a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received a cool reception from European allies as he pressed for their support in confronting Iran.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, told reporters following the meeting that she urged diplomacy and called for "maximum restraint" rather than the "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran that Pompeo had advocated, according to the Voice of America.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on arms control Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, the ranking member, demanded that the administration "immediately provide this committee with a briefing on the decision to order the departure of embassy staff" and "the intelligence on what Iran may be planning to do and any plans to go to war with Iran."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a supporter of the administration's tough stance on Iran, said, "I would urge the State Department and DoD to come down here and explain to us what's going on, because I have no idea what the threat stream is beyond what I read in the paper."
In Iran on Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, predicted neither war nor negotiations with the U.S.
"This face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war," Khamenei said, Iranian state TV and other official news outlets reported. "Neither we nor [the U.S.] seek war. They know it will not be in their interest.
"The definite decision of the Iranian nation is to resist against America," he said, according to official media. "In this showdown, America will be forced to retreat because our resolve is stronger."
In a series of Tweets on Wednesday, President Donald Trump denied that there was infighting among his aides on the Iran policy and said, "I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.