WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has quietly shifted combat troops and warships to the Middle East after the top American commander in the region warned that he needed additional forces to deal with Iran and other potential threats, U.S. officials said.
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, won White House approval for the deployments late last year after talks with the government in Baghdad broke down over keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, but the extent of the Pentagon moves is only now becoming clear.
Officials said the deployments are not meant to suggest a buildup to war, but rather are intended as a quick-reaction and contingency force in case a military crisis erupts in the stand-off with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
The Pentagon has stationed nearly 15,000 troops in Kuwait, adding to a small contingent already there. The new units include two Army infantry brigades and a helicopter unit — a substantial increase in combat power after nearly a decade in which Kuwait chiefly served as a staging area for supplies and personnel heading to Iraq.
The Pentagon also has decided to keep two aircraft carriers and their strike groups in the region.
Earlier this week, the American carrier Carl Vinson joined the carrier Stennis in the Arabian Sea, giving commanders major naval and air assets in case Iran carries out its recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic chokepoint in the Persian Gulf, where one-fifth of the world’s oil shipments passes.
The formerly Everett-based aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln left port in Thailand on Tuesday and is also reportedly steaming towards the area.
“There’s enough going on in that part of the world that you can see the merit in having a robust presence,” a senior Pentagon official said.
Navy officials say Iran might be able to temporarily block tanker traffic through the strait using anti-ship missiles and other weapons, but U.S. commanders say they can reopen the waterway quickly if necessary.
Gen. Ataollah Salehi, head of Iran’s army, warned the Stennis not to return to the Persian Gulf after the carrier passed through the strait earlier this month. The ship is scheduled to return to the U.S. soon, but officials said it will be replaced in order to keep two carriers in the volatile region.
U.S. officials are divided over how much to publicize the deployments. Regional allies tend to dislike public discussion about their cooperation with Washington. But the Pentagon wants Iran’s rulers to understand that the U.S. still has adequate forces available in case of a crisis.
Also Thursday, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on three companies that sell gasoline to Iran. Although Tehran is the world’s third-largest exporter of oil, it has limited refining capacity and must import most of its gasoline.
The State Department said it would bar U.S. export licenses and most U.S. financing for the Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp., which is based in China and is the largest seller of gasoline to Iran. Also sanctioned was Kuo Oil Pte Ltd., an energy trading firm based in Singapore, and FAL Oil Co., an independent energy trader based in the United Arab Emirates.