WASHINGTON • At a meeting of US President Donald Trump's top national security aides last week, Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or accelerates work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.
The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by national security adviser John Bolton. The plan does not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.
The development reflects the influence of Mr Bolton, one of the Trump administration's most virulent Iran hawks, whose push for confrontation with Teheran was ignored more than a decade ago by then President George W. Bush.
It is highly uncertain whether Mr Trump, who has sought to disentangle the US from Afghanistan and Syria, would send so many American forces back to the Middle East.
It is also unclear whether Mr Trump has been briefed on the number of troops or other details in the plans. On Monday, asked if he was seeking regime change in Iran, Mr Trump said: "We'll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake."
The administration is divided over how to respond to Iran at a time when tensions are rising over Iran's nuclear policy and its intentions in the Middle East.
Some senior US officials said the plans, even at a very preliminary stage, show how dangerous the threat from Iran has become.
Others, who are urging a diplomatic resolution, said it amounts to a scare tactic to warn Iran against new aggressions.
European allies who met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said they worry that tensions between Washington and Tehran could boil over, possibly inadvertently.
More than six US national security officials who have been briefed on details of the updated plans agreed to discuss them with The New York Times on condition of anonymity. Spokesmen for Mr Shanahan and General Joseph Dunford Jr, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to comment.
The size of the force involved has shocked some who were briefed on the plan; they said 120,000 troops would approach the size of the US force that invaded Iraq in 2003.
Deploying such a robust air, land and naval force would give Iran more targets to strike, and potentially more reason to do so, risking entangling the US in a drawn-out conflict. It would also reverse years of retrenching by the US military in the Middle East, which began with president Barack Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011.
But two of the officials said Mr Trump's drawdown of American forces in Syria - announced last December - and the US' diminished naval presence in the region appear to have emboldened some leaders in Teheran, and convinced the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that the US has no appetite for a fight with Iran.