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Trump says he's not weighing plan to deploy troops to Middle East

President Donald Trump speaks to the media on

President Donald Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, before boarding Marine One. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday dismissed reports that his administration has been weighing a plan to deploy 120,000 troops to the Middle East, but he did not rule out sending “a hell of a lot more troops than that” amid escalating tensions with Iran.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he would “absolutely” consider sending an influx of troops to the region, but said no plans were in the works, when asked about a New York Times report, published Monday, that indicated his top national security aides discussed a military plan last week to deploy about 120,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East if Iran strikes against American forces.

"Would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we don't have to plan for that,” Trump said. “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."

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented the updated military plan on Thursday, according to The Times, which cited more than a half-dozen national security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The plan also calls for an uptick in troops if Iran intensifies its efforts to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. It’s unclear  whether Trump has been briefed on the plan, according to the Times report.

The proposed new military strategy comes amid increased tensions between Tehran and Washington that have accelerated in the past year after Trump delivered on his campaign pledge to withdraw from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. 

On Tuesday morning, Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a tweet directed at Trump, said Trump risked entering “a war” for accepting the guidance of White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has long called for regime change in Iran.

"You wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you are going to get a war instead," Ashena tweeted. “That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache. Good luck in 2020!"

In the past year, the Trump administration has pushed a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions against Iran, designed in large part by Bolton.

Last week, Bolton announced the United States was deploying an aircraft carrier to the Middle East, citing intelligence that indicated Iran was planning an attack on U.S. troops in the region. On Monday, after a pair of Saudi oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were struck with explosives in the Persian Gulf during the weekend, U.S. intelligence officials said Iran was behind the incident.

Rouhani threatened last week to stop complying with parts of the nuclear deal if the remaining countries belonging to the pact — including France and Germany — do not deliver a plan within 60 days to provide Iran with relief from Trump’s economic sanctions.

Trump withdrew from the multinational accord last May despite the protestations of other allied nations who argued the accord is central to keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapons arsenal.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, questioned the Trump administration’s strategy in Iran.

“What is the strategy here?” said the Senate minority leader. “The administration just began a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions against Iran to squeeze its economy. Doesn’t it make sense to see if your policy is working before preparing for potential troop deployments — particularly in such large numbers?"

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