WASHINGTON: The US and Iran edged toward a flashpoint as Tehran announced it was breaking compliance with the accord that keeps it from making nuclear weapons and the Trump administration followed by ordering 1,000 more troops to the Middle East.
The Pentagon said the deployment includes security forces and troops for additional surveillance and intelligence gathering in the region. While the number is small, it represents an escalation of US military might aimed at deterring Iran and calming allies worried that transit through key shipping lanes could be in jeopardy.
Tehran's announcement earlier Monday means it could soon start to enrich uranium to just a step away from weapons-grade levels, challenging President Donald Trump's assurances to allies that the US withdrawal from the deal last year made the world a safer place.
The developments are bound to inflame tensions in the Middle East and pose a test of resolve and credibility for both adversaries.Iran said it would break a limit on uranium stockpiles established by the 2015 agreement with world powers that was intended to restrict the Islamic Republic's nuclear program in exchange for an easing of international sanctions.
After Trump withdrew from the agreement, signed by his predecessor, he reinstated punishing economic sanctions, leaving the European and other partners in the accord struggling to keep Iran on board.
On Monday, the US administration found itself in the awkward position of demanding that Iran comply with a nuclear accord that the president derided as the worst deal in history.
"We continue to call on the Iranian regime not to obtain a nuclear weapon, to abide by their commitments to the international community," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters.
The move comes as Washington accuses Iran of attacking two tankers near the Arabian Gulf and the Iranians deny responsibility. With details murky and no one owning up to the attacks, the Pentagon released new photos intended to bolster its case that Iran carried out the attacks.
The State Department spokeswoman said Iran's uranium announcement amounted to "extortion" and a "challenge to international norms," as well as to the 2015 agreement known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
"It's unfortunate that they have made this announcement today," Ortagus said. "It doesn't surprise anybody and this is why the president has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a better deal."
Trump appeared to say the deal should not be violated in a tweet: "Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limits."
In announcing the new deployment, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the forces are "for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East."
"The United States does not seek conflict with Iran," Shanahan said. "The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests." He added that the US will continue to adjust troop levels as needed.
On the unravelling of the multinational nuclear deal, some of its supporters blamed the Trump administration for Iran's provocative announcements, saying they were predictable given the renewed US pressure.