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Dhow in the Persian Gulf armed with Iranian missile explains U.S. alarm: Sources

Dhow in the Persian Gulf armed with Iranian missile explains U.S. alarm: Sources
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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 U.S. officials said.

Overhead imagery showed fully assembled missiles, stoking fears that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at U.S. naval ships.

Additional pieces of intelligence picked up threats against commercial shipping and potential attacks by Arab militias with Iran ties on Americans on U.S. troops in Iraq.

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 U.S. officials said, the photograph was not compelling enough to convince the American public and lawmakers, nor foreign allies, of the new Iranian threat.

The other photographs, which remain classified, show the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps loading missiles on to the boats in several different Iranian ports, the two officials said. It is believed the boats are under the Revolutionary Guards’s control.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, flanked by national security adviser John Bolton, left, and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, right, listen during the meeting between President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, April 26, 2019. Susan Walsh / AP

On Wednesday morning, the president attended a Situation Room briefing on Iran, a person familiar with the meeting said.

Pentagon and intelligence officials said three distinct Iranian actions have triggered alarms:

• U.S. concerns that Iran may be preparing to mount rocket or missile launchers on small ships in the Persian Gulf;

• information suggesting an Iranian threat against U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Irbil. On Wednesday, the State Department ordered nonessential personnel to leave the U.S. missions in Baghdad and Irbil.

• and a directive from Khamenei to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and regular Iranian military units that some U.S. officials have interpreted as a potential threat to U.S. military and diplomatic personnel.

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, they could indicate that Iran is preparing to attack U.S. forces. That is the view of John Bolton, President Donald 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.

They are getting way out ahead of themselves and Trump is annoyed

Either way, the questions about the underlying intelligence, and complaints by lawmakers that they had not been briefed on it, reflect the deep mistrust of Trump’s national security team.

Trump grew angry last week and over the weekend about what he sees as warlike planning that is getting ahead of his own thinking, said a senior administration official with knowledge of conversations Trump had regarding national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“They are getting way out ahead of themselves and Trump is annoyed,” the official said. “There was a scramble for Bolton and Pompeo and others to get on the same page.”

Bolton, who advocated regime change in Iran before joining the White House last year, is “just in a different place” from Trump, although the president has been a fierce critic of Iran since long before he hired Bolton. Trump “wants to talk to the Iranians; he wants a deal” and is open to negotiation with the Iranian government, the official said.

“He is not comfortable with all this ‘regime change’ talk,” which to his ears echoes the discussion of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the 2003 U.S. invasion, said the official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Trump is not inclined to respond forcefully unless there is a “big move” from the Iranians, a senior White House official said. Still, the president is willing to respond forcefully if there are American deaths or a dramatic escalation, the official said.

While Trump grumbles about Bolton somewhat regularly, his discontent with his national security adviser is not near the levels it reached with Rex Tillerson when he served as Trump’s secretary of state, the official added.

Intelligence officials are set to meet Thursday with senior congressional leaders for a briefing on the new intelligence about Iran. Nine U.S. 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.

With files from The New York Times and Washington Post

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