U.S. President Donald Trump speaks after signing bill H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg)

U.S. Pulls Iraq Embassy Staff as Tensions Climb Higher Over Iran

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. ordered its non-emergency government staff to leave Iraq amid increasing Middle East tensions that American officials are blaming on Iran, as fears rise that the region may be heading toward another conflict.

Most employees at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil, in the majority Kurdish region, will leave due to an “increased threat stream,” according to an embassy statement Wednesday that didn’t give more details. The move comes after the Pentagon accelerated a carrier battle group’s transit to the region and deployed a Patriot anti-missile battery to bolster forces.

U.S. officials on Wednesday reiterated that the Trump administration isn’t seeking a war, but said it will seek to hold Iran “accountable” for its actions and those of its proxies. The officials, who asked not to be identified, said the decision to withdraw embassy staff was based on considerations of safety and not meant as political signaling.

Denying reports of “infighting” in his administration over Iran policy, President Donald Trump said in a tweet Wednesday that “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

Yet critics of the Trump administration warned the U.S. isn’t sharing enough clear evidence of Iranian threats and say that without better intelligence, the latest buildup is reminiscent of the lead-in to the Iraq war in late 2002, which was based on faulty intelligence. Iranian officials have said that National Security Advisor John Bolton and other administration hawks are hyping the threat of war.

Separately, Saudi Arabia restarted its main cross-country oil pipeline after a drone attack by Iran-backed rebels based in neighboring Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- both Iranian rivals -- reported attacks on Monday on several vessels including Saudi oil tankers.

While it’s not yet clear who was behind the shipping attacks, the combination of events has raised the risk of conflict in a region that exports more than 16 million barrels of oil a day -- enough to supply all of Europe’s demand and more.

The U.A.E.’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the country is still investigating the attacks on the ships and said he’s “not going to jump the gun” on blaming any nation until the probe is completed. Addressing tensions in the region, Gargash said “we are very committed to deescalation.”

‘Suffer Greatly’

Trump has long said he wants to pull the U.S. out of Middle East conflicts, but this week he also warned that the Islamic Republic would “suffer greatly” if it provokes America.

Trump on Tuesday rejected a report that the Pentagon is updating scenarios for war with Iran, but then warned he’d send “a hell of a lot more” than 120,000 troops to the Middle East in the event of hostilities. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are demanding briefings on the latest intelligence on Iran, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo expected to meet with House members next week, according to an official.

Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said a classified briefing is needed “as soon as possible.”

While the administration didn’t elaborate, it blamed Iran-backed Shiite militias after pulling staff from the consulate in Basra in southern Iraq in September and Pompeo used an unannounced May 7 visit to the country to denounce what he called an “escalating” threat from Tehran.

Yet unlike in other hot spots such as Venezuela and North Korea, where the U.S. managed to forge an international coalition to advance its goals, Trump is diplomatically isolated on Iran after unilaterally quitting the 2015 nuclear deal a year ago, a move that alienated allies including the U.K. and Germany.

Amid the tensions, oil prices rebounded on Wednesday as a government report showed shrinking supplies of U.S. gasoline, suggesting more demand ahead for crude suppliers.

U.S. Pulls Iraq Embassy Staff as Tensions Climb Higher Over Iran

The series of events has increased concerns of a military confrontation, whether deliberate or otherwise.

Pompeo canceled a trip to Germany last week in order to make the unannounced visit to Iraq’s capital, where he spoke with leaders about an “escalating” threat from Iran and possible “big energy deals” to help wean the Iraqi economy away from its neighbor. This week, Pompeo made scant progress in persuading EU counterparts to take a harder line toward Iran in an last-minute trip to Brussels to share what the U.S. says is fresh intelligence on the threat posed by Tehran.

“I made clear once again that we are worried in view of the developments and the tensions in the region,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said after the meetings. “We don’t want a military escalation.” German officials on Wednesday said the country wasn’t aware of a “concrete threat” or change to the security situation in Iraq.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said the departures announced Wednesday did not amount to an evacuation, but to an ordered exit of non-essential personnel. He declined to say how many employees would remain. The last such drawdown took place in 2014, when Islamic State swept through the north of the country toward the capital. It lasted several months.

U.S. Pulls Iraq Embassy Staff as Tensions Climb Higher Over Iran

Shiite Muslim Iran has played a prominent role in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 put Iraq’s majority Shiite community in power. Tehran supports several powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, including some that played a significant role in the successful fight against Islamic State.

Trump says Iran’s missile program and support for militant groups is destabilizing the Mideast region and he has made countering the Islamic Republic a primary focus of his foreign policy, encouraged by Iranian foes led by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Israel.

In recent weeks, the U.S. ratcheted up the pressure on ruling clerics by scrapping waivers that had allowed some countries to carry on importing Iranian crude, and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite military unit, as a terrorist organization.

Iranian officials have warned of what they said is a disinformation campaign. Last month, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the targeting of his nation could take a dangerous turn and trigger a wider crisis. He suggested hard-liners in Washington and Saudi Arabia may be “plotting an ‘accident’ anywhere in the region.”

The U.S. assessment of an increased Iranian threat was disowned on Tuesday by the British deputy commander of the international campaign to defeat Islamic State, Major General Christopher Ghika. “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” he said in a briefing for Pentagon reporters.

In an unusual airing of differences, U.S. Central Command then issued a statement rejecting Ghika’s comments as “running counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence.”

Gargash, the U.A.E. minister of state, said that the current situation in the region means “we need to emphasize caution and we need to emphasize good judgment. It’s a very brittle, difficult situation.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.