Officials have spotlighted recent US decisions to deploy an aircraft carrier, strategic bombers and other military assets to reinforce troops across the Middle East. They have also told reporters that further military action is on the table.
But allies have publicly expressed caution, challenging claims of a rising threat level and, in some cases, distancing military assets from those that Washington has framed as being under threat.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Monday that Europe wanted to avoid “escalation on the military side” after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crashed a summit in Brussels in an attempt to bring foreign ministers there on board. Playing off Pompeo’s comments regarding “maximum pressure”, Mogherini called instead for “maximum restraint”.
Another Western diplomat said they had yet to see “anything convincing” in intelligence terms. The diplomat was not authorised to discuss the issue with the media and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Iran has long supported a network of proxy forces across the Middle East, backing militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen as part of a broader struggle for influence. President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of rolling back that influence, and his national security adviser, John Bolton, is a longtime advocate of boxing Tehran into a corner.
Tehran has described growing pressure from Washington as “psychological warfare” aimed at regime change. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his Twitter account Tuesday to warn against further escalation.
“We don’t seek a war, nor do they,” he said. “They know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them.”
As tensions rose this week, several US allies appeared to distance themselves from US missions in the region. On Tuesday it was Spain, announcing that it had pulled a frigate from a US-led naval group that is headed for the Persian Gulf.
On Wednesday, both Germany and the Netherlands said that they had suspended participation in a training mission for Iraqi troops. They cited increased friction between the United States and Iran, although officials said there was no concrete threat against their troops.
Iran, which is led by Shiite Muslim clerics, commands significant influence among certain political and military quarters in Iraq, backing clerics and politicians as well as some of the Shiite militias the United States once openly fought. More recently, the two have formed part of an uneasy alliance in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State.
The US Embassy in Baghdad is among Washington’s largest outposts in the world. It was unclear on Wednesday how many personnel would be leaving, or when they would return.
The United States also has about 5,000 military personnel stationed in Iraq, after years-long battles to defeat Islamist militants there. With the Islamic State officially defeated, there have been growing calls among Iraqi lawmakers for US troops to depart.
There are few indications, however, that such a decision is likely to come down in the near future, and the US-led coalition continues to lead airstrikes and ground operations against Islamic State holdouts, particularly north of Baghdad.
The State Department’s order for the withdrawal of non-emergency personnel from US Embassy and consular facilities came days after it warned American citizens not to travel to Iraq.
The Washington Post