President Trump on Tuesday said he would send “a hell of a lot” more U.S. troops to the Middle East to counter Iran than were sent to Iraq in 2003.
Trump made the comment after being asked about a New York Times report that officials in his administration updated a military plan that calls for sending up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack U.S. forces or start up nuclear fuel production, which has been suspended under the Iranian nuclear agreement.
Trump called the Times report fake news, then confirmed that he would do it, even though he didn’t want to do it — and that if he did, there would definitely be more than 120,000 troops involved.
“I think it’s fake news. Okay? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not gonna have to plan for that. And if we did that we would send a hell of a lot more troops than that. But I think it’s just — where was that story, in The New York Times? Well, The New York Times is fake news.”
The Times report, published Monday, reveals the growing influence of Trump administration officials who are hawkish on Iran, like national security adviser John Bolton. Officials who spoke to the Times said that hardliners like Bolton ordered the changes to the military plan on Iran, which does not involve a land invasion of the country.
A land invasion of Iran would require substantially more U.S. troops. For comparison, 120,000 troops would approach the number that invaded Iraq in 2003. Iraq has less than a third of Iran’s population, now at 81 million, and is slightly over one-fourth the size of Iran in land.
More than half a dozen officials spoke to the Times, and some who were briefed on the plan said they were shocked at the large size of troops that would be involved. Some said the new plan shows the threat that Iran has become, while others warned that this “amounts to a scare tactic to warn Iran against new aggressions.”
Over the last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held last-minute meetings in Belgium and Iraq, reportedly to discuss the threats that Iran poses to the region. His efforts in both countries did not go over well.
After Pompeo’s visit to Iraq last week, the president and prime minister both stressed the importance of Iraq cooperating with all its neighbors and building bridges. When Pompeo visited Belgium on Monday — again, at the last minute — E.U. diplomats were reportedly not pleased, with one telling the Wall Street Journal, “He wanted a photo op. We declined and stuck with the plan.”
It would be hard for Trump to sell Iran as an imminent threat, in large part because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and that it is still complying with the terms of the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement.
Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2018, and since then his administration has reimposed sanctions on Iran and threatened secondary sanctions on those in other countries still doing business with or in Iran. The agreement — struck between Iran, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Germany — is technically still in place, but the sanctions violate the key tenet Iran was supposed to be offered in exchange for limiting its nuclear activity.
Last week, Iran announced that if the European Union did not do anything to address this imbalance in 60 days, it would resume some of the activities it stopped as part of the deal. (Experts note that this isn’t technically a violation of the deal, nor is it a sign that Iran is trying to get a nuclear bomb.)
Despite previous allegations that he did not support the invasion of Iraq, Trump is on the record as having supported the war. In 2002, Trump was asked if he was for invading Iraq, and he replied, “Yeah, I guess so. You know I wish… the first time it was done correctly.” One day into the invasion, he said that it “looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint” and that “Wall Street’s just gonna go up like a rocket.”
The Times report stressed that it was not clear if Trump was briefed on the new plan’s details or the number of troops that would be involved.
But during a press conference on Monday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Trump was asked if he was at war with or seeking regime change in Iran.
“We’ll see what happens with Iran,” he replied. “If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake. If they do anything. I’m hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran.”