Washington (CNN) - The US narrative of a deepening threat from Iran was questioned and contradicted as senior Iranian officials warned the US against conflict and Russia's foreign minister spoke of a "downward spiral."
The British Ministry of Defense on Wednesday backed one of its generals who countered US claims of a heightened Iranian threat in Syria and Iraq. Lawmakers are raising questions about the administration's military planning for Iran. Analysts are pointing to national security adviser John Bolton's advocacy for regime change in Tehran, while the UN and US allies are expressing concern.
Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said Tehran doesn't want a war that would devastate the region. They denied Iranian involvement in attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and on a Saudi oil station, raising the possibility of sabotage. And they charged that Washington was unnecessarily escalating tensions with Tehran.
Tehran's full court press on the public followed a New York Times report that Bolton ordered updates to a military plan to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack US forces or escalate its nuclear activities.
One US official told CNN that the meeting between members of Trump's national security team to discuss military options "was driven by an interest in being ready for anything."
The options reviewed include taking military action with more than 100,000 US forces to delay Iran's nuclear program if it becomes a serious threat, the official said.
These reports follow Tehran's decision to stop fully complying with the 2015 nuclear pact after several weeks of intensifying US sanctions and restrictions against Iran, as well as warnings from Washington about an increased Iranian threat to US personnel in the region.
The State Department cited those threats Wednesday when it ordered the departure of non-essential personnel from the embassy in Baghdad. Bolton also cited increased threats on May 5 when he announced the swift deployment of a Navy strike group and bomber to the Persian Gulf.
But questions about that deployment, the characterization of the threat against US troops and the tanker attacks have raised concerns that the Trump administration may be angling for a clash with Tehran.
On Tuesday, the deputy commander of the US-led military coalition against ISIS contradicted US claims that Iran was posing a heightened level of threat. "There has been no increased threat from Iranian backed forces in Iraq or Syria," UK Major Gen. Chris Ghika told Pentagon reporters, saying threats to US and coalition forces remain steady.
His comments prompted a response from Capt. Bill Urban, lead spokesman US Central Command, who didn't address whether the threat level had changed, but said Ghika's comments "run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region."
And a US official and several sources familiar with the situation told CNN Wednesday night that Ghika was wrong.
According to those sources, the UK government knows there is a heightened threat level from Iran and the militias supported by the regime against the US and its allies, was briefed by the US and agrees with the intelligence.
It's unclear where the disconnect arose, but one source says it may have been an issue in how Ghika was briefed, and that he may not have gotten all the information.
This is not believed to be an intentional dismissal of the US assessment on his part.
The British Ministry of Defense backed Ghika on Wednesday, saying "his comments are based on the day to day military operations." But sources told CNN that UK government officials know Ghika's comments Tuesday were not accurate, and they have caused a problem, which is why the original "defense" of his comments was so awkward and vague.
The British understand the threat is heightened, they understand the bad optics of this and may correct it with another statement, according to the sources.
Taking the bait
"I think what we're seeing now is our own administration goading Iran into taking ill-advised and tremendously foolish actions that would provide them with justification to ... use force against the Iranian regime," said Ned Price, a former intelligence officer now with the group National Security Action.
Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, which works to end the spread and use of nuclear weapons, pointed to Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have previously advocated for regime change in Iran, as prime drivers of the dynamic.
Another factor is Bolton's history, as part of the Bush administration team that led the US into war in Iraq, in part on the basis of false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
"I see all the pieces being put on the table, by John Bolton primarily, setting up a situation where the United States gets drawn into war with Iran in a way that the Trump administration can deny blame," Collina said.
Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, reacted to reports about the 120,000 troops by saying, "Bolton is methodically setting the stage for war with Iran -- forcing Iran into a corner and then readying war plans for when Iran takes the bait."
Bolton and the National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment, but administration officials have said that most instability and unrest in the Middle East can be traced back to Iran and that they intend to make Tehran change its ways.
Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, Pompeo said that "we fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran." State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told CNN that "any attacks by the Iranian regime or its proxies against US interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive US response."
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of Foundation for Democracies who advises the administration and Congress on Iran policy, said there's a strategy behind the news release about the 120,000 troops.
"I imagine the administration is providing this info publicly to frighten the regime in Iran and also as part of responsible contingency planning," Dubowitz said. "Part of the psychological operations being employed to deter further regime escalation."
'Spin out of control
Collina said news of the military's plans, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, its ongoing pressure campaign to squeeze Iran economically, the US deployment to the Persian Gulf and the tanker attacks, all "adds up to a very tense escalated situation where it could easily spin out of control."
Many critics see parallels in the current situation to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which essentially launched the US into the Vietnam War. "You have opposing forces too close together, something happens, one side gets blamed and before you know it, you've got an international incident," Collina said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking alongside Pompeo, expressed concern about the situation, describing it as a "downward spiral." He said Russia needs to consult with Europe and China "to find a way out of this crisis because the situation is getting worse and worse."
Iranian leaders appeared to feel some pressure, as they issued a series of public statements cautioning against conflict.
Khamenei told high ranking officials and lawmakers on Tuesday that "we don't seek a war nor do they." Khamenei reportedly said of the US that "they know a war wouldn't be beneficial for them."
Iran's diplomats made a similar case outside the country.
In London Tuesday, Iran's ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, told journalists that "if the US wants to draw Iran into a military conflict, they should be aware that this will be devastating, not just for the US, but also for the whole [Persian Gulf] region."
In the US, Iran's ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, raised the specter of officials in Washington pushing for war.
Iran is "not in the business of trying to create conflict in our neighborhood," Ravanchi told CNN's "New Day," "because nobody is going to have benefit from such a conflict in our region except for a few ... some people in Washington and some countries in our neighborhood."
Asked about the heightened tensions during a trip to India, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pointed to Washington as well. "Well unfortunately, the United States has been escalating the situation unnecessarily," Zarif said. "We do not seek escalation, but we have always defended ourselves."
The UN and other allies are expressing discomfort. On Wednesday, UN Secretary General António Guterres urged "restraint" from all sides. The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, after Pompeo met with EU foreign ministers on Monday, that "the most relevant and responsible attitude to take is that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on a military side." And Spain has pulled a vessel from the US Navy strike group that was sent to the Persian Gulf.
Advocates for a tough approach to Iran see the recent US moves as a course correction, particularly the idea of an increased troop presence and the strike group deployment.
"An adequate force posture can actually dampen Iranian escalation prospects," said Behnam Ben Talebu, a senior fellow at the FDD. "Weakness and irresolution can lead to more Iranian testing and meddling, not less."
Ben Talebu said the strike group's deployment compliments the administration's maximum pressure campaign and makes up "for gaps in its regional force posture."
But others, like Price the former intelligence officer, are wary. Bolton and Pompeo's history of pushing for regime change in Iran "has given us nothing but good reason to be skeptical," Price said.
Questions continue to mount. While Bolton characterized the deployment of the Navy strike group and bomber as a response to Iranian threats against US personnel in Iraq and Syria, US allies and Pompeo said the movements had been planned for some time.
Questions also remain about the attack on the four tankers in the Persian Gulf, two belonging to Saudi Arabia, one to the United Arab Emirates and one to Norway.
A US official told CNN that Washington has decided not to publicly voice its suspicions that Iran was behind the attack in part because of the lack of detail from the UAE and Saudi Arabia about how the ships were damaged, apart from a vague claim of sabotage.
On Wednesday night, more detail started to come out about the operation. A source familiar with the situation said multiple governments now believe it was a sophisticated operation using mines similar to "limpet mines" used during World War II to attack the ships while they were in port. According to the source familiar, the mines would have been attached to the hulls of the ships by individuals in boats small enough to evade detection, which is made possible by the large size of the cargo ships that were damaged, or even possibly attached by divers.
Senior diplomatic sources told CNN there's little information about the attack. "We don't know who did it -- although the US clearly suspects Iran," one diplomat said.
Baeidinejad, Iran's ambassador to the UK, denied any Iranian involvement in the attack, saying the incident "is very suspicious to us." He also denied Iran was behind Tuesday's drone attack on an oil pumping station in Saudi Arabia. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility.
Behnam of the FDD said the tanker attack had all the hallmarks of an Iranian operation.
"A highly deniable attack, such as the one on the hull of the tankers, would be entirely consistent with the past four decades of Iranian security strategy, which emphasizes increasing the challenges of attribution, overcoming conventional military weaknesses, and decreasing the prospects of escalation against the Iranian homeland for regime meddling," he said.