The State Department on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of non-emergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, a move that comes as the U.S. government has alluded to risks of an attack by the Islamic Republic or its proxies in the region.
The Wednesday order follows a travel advisory posted on the embassy’s website Sunday urging American citizens not to travel to Iraq and to remain vigilant. The department said in light of the heightened tensions, non-emergency staff at both the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil would be evacuated, adding that the government’s ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens there is “extremely limited.”
Story Continued Below
The State Department has also temporarily suspended normal visa services at both locations, Wednesday’s announcement said.
Tensions with Tehran have heightened in recent weeks, with the U.S. adding additional sanctions targeting Iran in the wake of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s announcement that his nation would end its compliance with portions of a 2015 nuclear agreement unless the deal’s other signatories renegotiate. The U.S., which helped negotiate the deal under President Barack Obama, withdrew from it last year under President Donald Trump.
Friction between the U.S. and Iran also increased earlier this year with the Trump administration’s decision to identify the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist organization.
Over the past week, the Pentagon has deployed a series of military assets to the Persian Gulf region, including an aircraft carrier, a bomber group and other warships, citing an unspecified “credible threat” from Iran to U.S. interests. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has twice diverted foreign travel to address what the administration has identified as a growing crisis, making a surprise visit to Baghdad last week and meeting in Brussels with European leaders on Monday to brief them on what he called threats and concerns emanating from Tehran.
The U.S. has blamed Iranian militants for a series of attacks over the weekend on oil tankers near an important waterway in the Persian Gulf, accusations Tehran denied. And Iran-backed Houthi militants took credit Tuesday for drone attacks on a major Saudi Arabian pipeline in the region.
The uptick in tension has been met with concern and skepticism by some U.S. allies. The Associated Press reported that British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed concern on behalf of his nation that a conflict could erupt “with an escalation that is unintended really on either side.” And British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, said Tuesday there was “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces” to U.S. or other coalition forces in the region.
The Pentagon later disputed Ghika’s assessment via a statement from U.S. Central Command.
And in another sign of the severity of the rising tensions, The New York Times reported that White House officials were briefed last week on an updated war plan for potential conflict with Iran that included the deployment of up to 120,000 U.S. troops. Trump denied the report Tuesday, but said he would “absolutely” deploy American forces to Iran and that if he did, he’d send “a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
The escalations have been reminiscent to some of the runup to the Iraq War leading to warnings about engaging in another conflict in the Middle East, though Pompeo said Tuesday following a meeting with his Russian counterpart that “we fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.”
He later added that “we’ve also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.”