Pompeo to meet with U.S. commanders amid growing crisis with Iran

Pompeo has promised to provide more evidence to allies backing up the administration's allegations that Iran orchestrated attacks on tankers last week.
Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks at the State Department
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks at the State Department on June 13, 2019.Eric Baradat / AFP - Getty Images

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By Yasmin Vossoughian, Courtney Kube, Mosheh Gains and Dan De Luce

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to meet with U.S. military commanders overseeing American forces in the Middle East after promising to provide more proof that Iran was behind attacks on two tankers last week, the State Department said Monday.

Pompeo is scheduled to fly on Monday to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, amid mounting tensions with Iran following the attacks on the two commercial ships last week in the Gulf of Oman, which the Trump administration has blamed on Iran.

Pompeo will hold talks on Tuesday with Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, who is responsible for forces deployed in the Middle East, and Gen. Richard Clarke, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, "to discuss regional security concerns and ongoing operations," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters.

A defense official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told NBC News that Pompeo's visit to Central Command was previously scheduled and not arranged as a result of the attacks last week on the two tankers.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The secretary of state said on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that the administration was considering a "full range of options" to deter Iran. Asked if military action was among those options, Pompeo said: "Of course."

While he did not directly answer questions about whether the administration would send more forces to the Persian Gulf, Pompeo said on Sunday that Washington will ensure the safe transit of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

"This is an international challenge," Pompeo said on Fox News. "This is important to the entire globe. The United States is going to make sure that we take all actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise, to achieve that outcome."

Former U.S. officials and regional experts say the Trump administration will likely weigh deploying more aircraft and other resources to expand surveillance and intelligence gathering over shipping routes in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz. About 30 percent of the world's seaborne crude oil passes through the narrow strait, a choke point that lies along Iran's coast.

Pompeo met with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday after publicly accusing Iran of carrying out the attacks on the two ships in the Gulf of Oman.

Iran has vehemently denied any role in the attacks on the tankers.

Officials in Japan, Germany and the European Union have indicated more information is required before concluding that Iran orchestrated the explosions that crippled the two tankers, forcing their crews to evacuate.

Both vessels were carrying oil products. One ship was Norwegian-owned and the other was Japanese-owned.

The Pentagon released a grainy video last week that it says shows an Iranian patrol boat crew removing an item from one of the commercial ships that the administration says is an unexploded mine.

Following the release of the clip, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas appealed for more information on the incident, saying the video was "not enough."

But Pompeo rejected suggestions that the U.S. assessment was in doubt. "The German foreign minister has seen a great deal more than just that video," Pompeo said on CBS. "He will continue to see more."

Iran is under growing economic pressure after the Trump administration imposed a global embargo on Tehran's oil exports. The country faces rampant inflation and political leaders are threatening to abandon a 2015 nuclear agreement signed with world powers if it does not see some economic relief from European governments soon.

On Monday, Iran said it would violate limits on its stock of low-enriched uranium in 10 days, breaching a provision of the nuclear deal.

"We have quadrupled the rate of enrichment and even increased it more recently, so that in 10 days it will bypass the 300 kg (661 pounds) limit," Iran's Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said on state TV.

But he also said there was still time for European states to rescue the nuclear accord by delivering some economic benefits to Iran.

The nuclear accord imposed limits on Iran's atomic program designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons in return for lifting international and some U.S. sanctions. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement last year but European governments have urged Iran to abide by the deal.

Hours after Iran’s announcement, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said it would continue to implement the nuclear accord and would await the findings of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mogherini called for "maximum restraint" and expressed concern over "the risk of miscalculations or unintentional escalations."

She added that "what we would not like to see is a military escalation in the region. We think that would be extremely dangerous."

The sanctions imposed by Trump on Iran have put the country under intense pressure, and the regime is looking for ways to relieve the economic pain, including by threatening to pull out of the nuclear deal and pressing other countries to push back against Washington's tough approach, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute think tank.

"This is a nasty chokehold. And the Iranians are going to do anything to get out of it," Knights said.

Abigail Williams contributed.