Iran’s response—declaring U.S. forces in the region a terrorist group themselves—was also unclear in its implications, but twice in the weeks that followed a Pentagon spokesperson told us that there was no indication of an imminent threat to U.S. forces in the region due to the terrorism designation. Bolton, however, on Sunday cited “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” without going into further detail. Asked for comment, DOD referred back to Bolton’s statement. On Monday, moreover, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was considering abandoning some elements of the nuclear deal that Trump left but that all the other parties have continued to observe.
If the specific warnings about Iran’s intent remain murky, the potential for Iran to threaten the U.S. and allies in the region is serious. (Axios reported on Monday that the U.S. was responding to intelligence from Israel, though the Israeli embassy declined to comment.)
“The reality is, the U.S. is very much exposed in the region,” Ali Vaez, an expert on Iran at the Crisis Group, told us, adding: “The Iranians have plenty of experience targeting U.S. forces in the region indirectly through the use of their Shia militia allies.”
The U.S. has some 2,000 troops in Syria, where Iran and its proxies have a physical military presence; 5,000 security forces in Iraq, where the Islamic Republic remains an influential player; and 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, where Tehran has made common cause with the Taliban in the fight against ISIS. Iran has the means to escalate tensions in any of these countries.
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The U.S. has also demonstrated in the past a willingness to strike back. In 2017, the U.S. struck a convoy of Syrian and Iranian-backed militias as it approached a U.S. base in Syria. Brett McGurk, formerly the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, on Monday told MSNBC that “we have no diplomatic channels with Iran whatsoever,” and said the risks of a clash were increasing given that there’s no real way to get messages privately to the Iranians to avoid it.
Iranian proxies could also fire rockets against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. Last September, Iranian-backed militias struck the U.S. consulate in Basra, forcing its evacuation, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. And in the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials have in recent years cited unsafe or harassing maneuvers by Iranian drones and boats against U.S. planes and ships—in 2016, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps briefly captured 10 U.S. sailors at sea.
“The U.S. is now signaling that it is prepared to retaliate” by emphasizing that it does not distinguish between the Iranian government and its militia proxies, Michael Knights, an expert on the region at the Washington Institute, a think tank that studies the Middle East, told us.