WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Thursday that he had not yet decided whether to deploy additional troops to the Middle East to provide protection for American military personnel already there, but would consider options presented by the Pentagon.
The president’s comments, during a farm aid event at the White House, came after a statement from the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that top administration officials were considering an additional troop deployment in light of increased tensions with Iran. Mr. Shanahan did not specify how many troops were under consideration.
Mr. Trump, responding to questions from reporters, said he did not think the additional troops would be needed, but said he was willing to consider it.
Mr. Shanahan and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were at the White House on Thursday to brief Mr. Trump on military options to protect American troops stationed in the Middle East.
An American official said on Wednesday that the Pentagon planned to present an option for deploying up to 20,000 troops to the region. But some Defense Department officials viewed such a move as potentially running counter to protecting the troops already there, as it could give adversaries in the region even more of a target.
“What we’re looking at is: Are there things that we can do to enhance force protection in the Middle East?” Mr. Shanahan said. “It may involve sending additional troops.”
Any additional troop buildup is bound to run into problems on Capitol Hill, where skeptical lawmakers — most of them Democrats — have challenged administration officials about whether the latest tensions with Iran have been caused by Tehran or Washington.
“I’ve looked at all the intelligence over the past two weeks,” Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” “The unanswered question is who is provoking whom. As we escalate sending more troops, moving aircraft carriers, we view it as preventative and as defensive. They view it as provocative and leading up to a pre-emptive attack.”
Top American officials, led by John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the United States Central Command, have cited recent intelligence that they said showed that Iran was considering attacks by its proxy forces on American troops in the region and on the oil infrastructure belonging to American allies.
Last week, Iran removed some missiles it had stationed on small boats in its territorial waters — a step American officials said was a sign that Iran was seeking to ease tensions. Mr. Trump told Mr. Shanahan last week that he did not want a war with Iran, despite the decision to accelerate the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East, and to send bombers and Patriot missiles to the region.
Now Central Command, which oversees American military forces in the Middle East, is requesting additional measures, as part of an effort, one Defense Department official said, to deter Iran or forces loyal to Tehran from any attacks.
“Part of the conversation that’s just normal is: Do we have the right assets in the region?” Mr. Shanahan said. “We’re very protective of our men and women. We’re very protective of our interests in the region.”
Any decision to send a large number of troops back to the region where so many were stationed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would blow a hole in Mr. Trump’s own national defense strategy. That strategy sets as a priority a so-called great power conflict, with foes like Russia and China, over the regional counterinsurgency-type fights that American troops have been waging in the Middle East.
Iranian leaders have responded to the American measures with tough talk of their own. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said on Thursday that his country would not bend to American pressure. Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that Iran’s top military chief on Thursday described the standoff between Washington and Tehran as a “clash of wills,” warning against any enemy “adventurism.”
It was unclear when Mr. Trump might make a decision on whether to send additional troops. One aide noted that while Mr. Trump talked tough on issues of terrorism, he did not like the idea of American troops fighting in the Middle East, and lost his previous defense secretary, Jim Mattis, over his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.