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Trump Administration Debates How Much Of A Threat Iran Is To The U.S.


As he left the White House this afternoon, President Trump knocked down a published report that he's reviewing how the U.S. might react if Iran attacks the U.S. or its allies. The plans could possibly lead to tens of thousands of U.S. troops being sent to the region.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, would I do that - absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we're not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that.

CORNISH: That report in The New York Times follows a week in which the U.S. sent ships, bombers and missiles to the Persian Gulf because of unspecified threats from Iran. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk more about it. Welcome to the studio, Tom.


CORNISH: There are a lot of mixed signals coming from the administration about what's happening in Iran at this point. So let's start with the idea of the threat. What do we know about it?

BOWMAN: Well, Audie, it depends who you talk to. I spoke with someone on the Hill who was briefed on this. And this person said - listen; there's not much new here in this threat assessment. Of course Iranian troops or advisers, proxies have been in this area in Syria, Iraq and Yemen for years now. And an Iranian drone buzzed a U.S. ship, but that was two years ago. And around that time, the U.S. shot down two drones that were following American-backed rebels in Syria. And that's pretty much it - again, two years ago.

Now, I talked with a couple of senior defense officials. They see it differently. They see the threat is real, that it's serious. And they say the Iranian state has said to its military arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, to reach out to its proxies and cause damage to either the U.S. or its allies. Now we have these oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates reportedly damaged, maybe sabotaged.

So the question is, was this Iran? Is this an opening salvo in some way? The U.S. is assisting in the Emiratis in getting to the bottom of it. At this point, we really just don't know. But it could be the beginning of something.

CORNISH: What about military officers in the region? What do they think about this?

BOWMAN: Well, it's interesting. There was a Pentagon briefing today by the No. 2 officer who is overseeing the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He's British Major General Chris Ghika, and he's based in Baghdad. And he said they picked up no problems or threats with Iranian militias there. Known as the Popular Mobilization Front, or PMF, they operate in Iraq. Let's listen.


CHRIS GHIKA: We've seen no change in the posture or the lay down of the PMF. And of course the PMF is a moniker for a very broad range of groups. So I think it's important to say that many of them are compliant. And we have seen, as I say, no change in their posture since the recent exchange between the United States and Iran. And we hope and expect that that will continue.

BOWMAN: And I asked the general, well, have you raised the threat assessment in the country for U.S. troops, certain ally troops, put it on a higher level? And he wouldn't answer.

CORNISH: What about the Pentagon? How are officials there describing what Iran is up to?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm hearing from some officers who worried that national security adviser John Bolton is pushing the U.S. into a war with Iran. They point to his bellicose language going back several years talking about Iran. And they're worried that the administration is trying to goad Iran into a fight. They point to the fact that the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran. They would prefer to have diplomats talk about this and not in any way, you know, have this head into a war.

They also mentioned that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has been put on the terror watch list. That's also a way of goading Iran into a fight. So there's a real concern about it.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks for your reporting.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.