WASHINGTON -- The State Department ordered several hundred U.S. diplomatic personnel to leave Iraq on Wednesday, citing heightened threats from neighboring Iran amid a buildup of U.S. military forces in the volatile region and growing concerns of a potential conflict with Tehran.
The uptick in tensions came nearly two weeks after the White House warned of what it described as potential targeting of U.S. forces, allies and interests by Iranian security forces or their proxies. It provided no details and some military allies and senior members of Congress questioned the administration's assessments.
So far this month, the Pentagon has sent the Abraham Lincoln carrier task force and Air Force B-52 bombers to the region and dusted off contingency war plans, the Treasury Department has increased sanctions on Iran's economy, and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo made a sudden trip to Baghdad to consult with U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Few allies embraced the aggressive U.S. moves and several warned of an accidental clash in Iraq, where U.S. military forces and Iranian-backed militias operate in close proximity, or in the Persian Gulf, where Iranian and U.S. ships sometimes sail at close quarters.
Iran's leaders sought to ease concerns, saying the Trump administration's actions and rhetoric were psychological warfare intended to rattle the regime as it pushed back against growing U.S. pressure.
"Neither they, nor we, want war," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Iranian TV at an iftar dinner breaking the Ramadan fast in Tehran late Tuesday.
Trump expressed optimism about his efforts to force Iran back to the negotiating table a year after he unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear disarmament deal and began re-imposing U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil, metals, banking and other core sectors of the economy.
"I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon," he tweeted Wednesday.
Iran has shown no sign of bending, and has appealed for support from other signatories to the nuclear deal to allow it to continue exporting oil, a crucial source of foreign revenue, after the Trump administration threatened to impose sanctions on countries or companies that import Iranian oil.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week said Tehran would stop complying with parts of the 2015 nuclear deal by stockpiling low-enriched uranium, rather than shipping the surplus out of the country, but the moves did not put Iran on the path to a nuclear weapon.