By Nicole Gaouette
Washington (CNN) US and Israeli officials issued tough warnings about Iran’s activities in Syria and beyond on Thursday, in the lead-up to President Donald Trump’s May 12 decision on whether to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.
The steady drumbeat appeared to reinforce signals Trump has been sending about his intent to leave the deal. And in the absence of any clear sign the White House has a “day after” plan, there are deepening concerns in some quarters that White House policy toward Tehran may be shifting from denuclearization to regime change.
“I think we are not moving toward a new agreement,” said Clement Therme, a Bahrain-based research fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I think we are moving toward a regime change policy in the US.”
US and Israeli officials laid out a litany of examples of malign Iranian behavior on Thursday. Some laid the ground for potential Israeli action against Iran within Syria. Others warned the conflict could spread from there.
Speaking to lawmakers, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that Iran is bringing in increased amounts of weaponry to Syria, and suggested that Iran intends to attack Israel. Mattis said Iran’s proxy activities in Syria are driving a significant risk of escalated conflict that could engulf the region.
Privately, US military officials are warning of the potential for more direct confrontation between Iran and Israel that could spiral out of control.
“The potential for escalation has grown,” one defense official told CNN’s Barbara Starr. The Pentagon is publicly trying to emphasize that any military moves by Iran “would take us where we don’t want to go,” the official said. “There is serious concern this could escalate.”
In New York, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council that Iran is the patron and protector of groups that use human shields, “part of Iran’s overarching efforts to destabilize the region.”
Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, reminded the Security Council that the threats posed by Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria’s Assad regime have one common source. “The Iranian regime is the dangerous thread that ties these threats together,” he said, before he went on to denounce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known.
The officials’ warnings come two days after Trump signaled again that he might leave the JCPOA, which he dismissed as “insane,” and just hours after the President told “Fox and Friends” that “Iran is a real problem for this country.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Richard Roth, Elizabeth Joseph and Laura Koran contributed to this report.