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Photo: Getty Images

The U.S. is deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East in response to "hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups" that threaten U.S. "personnel and interests," acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan announced Monday.

The backdrop: The U.S.-Iran standoff is reaching uncharted waters. As the Trump administration scrambles to rally an international response to Iran’s alleged covert attacks last week, Tehran is taking a long-feared step in broad daylight — announcing it will breach the 2015 nuclear deal’s limits on enriched uranium in 10 day's time.

  • Shanahan said the U.S. isn't seeking "conflict" with Iran, but would "make adjustments to force levels as necessary given intelligence reporting and credible threats."
  • Meanwhile, the Pentagon tonight released additional photos it says indicate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps was behind attacks on two oil tankers last week.
  • While the U.K., Saudi Arabia and Israel have backed the administration's assessment, domestic critics and some U.S. allies — including Germany and Japan — have demanded more evidence

The big picture: President Trump now faces dual challenges — deterring attacks on oil shipments through the critical Strait of Hormuz and keeping Iran from marching toward a nuclear weapon — amid a crisis that many of America’s allies privately hold him at least partially responsible for.

Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council argues for Axios Expert Voices that Iran is “signaling the death” of the 2015 nuclear deal.

  • “Even if initial infringements are modest, the combination of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, a near-total U.S. embargo on Iranian energy exports and Europe’s failure to operationalize a reliable means of trading with Iran is increasingly unstable,” she writes.
  • “If the Iranians make good on their threat… Tehran will have enough fuel to make a single bomb in less than a year for the first time since the 2015 agreement went into effect,” David Sanger writes in the NY Times.

The White House, meanwhile, is accusing Iran of “nuclear blackmail” and vowing to never allow the regime get a bomb.

  • The Trump administration argues that the impending crisis only highlights the vulnerabilities of the original deal. Trump’s critics argue that he left the deal without a Plan B, and has simply been squeezing Iran since and waiting for something to burst.
  • The Trump administration has said its ultimate goal is a new, more comprehensive deal with Iran. Trump has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want a war.
  • But officials suggested that even absent a deal the maximum pressure campaign would render Iran less dangerous by restricting its cashflow. Recent events are challenging that theory.

What to watch: Iran is now betting that the Trump administration "is too risk-averse to resort to military action and potentially touch off a regional conflagration," Slavin writes. That too will be put to the test.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Special report: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.

Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

McConnell: Trump "provoked" Capitol mob

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was "provoked by the president and other powerful people."

Why it matters: Trump was impeached by the House last week for "incitement of insurrection." McConnell has not said how he will vote in Trump's coming Senate impeachment trial, but sources told Axios' Mike Allen that the chances of him voting to convict are higher than 50%.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP leaders skip Trump sendoff in favor of church with Biden

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in July. Photo by Erin Scott-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional leaders, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will skip President Trump's departure ceremony in Maryland tomorrow morning in favor of attending mass with incoming President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration, congressional sources familiar with their plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: Their decision is a clear sign of unity before Biden takes the oath of office.