The United States will bolster its military presence in the Middle East with 1,500 more troops, President Donald Trump said Friday amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Trump said the troops would have a “mostly protective” role as part of a buildup that began this month in response to what the U.S said was a threat from Iran without providing details or evidence.

“We are going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective,” the president told reporters at the White House before setting off on a trip to Japan. “Some very talented people are going to the Middle East right now, and we’ll see what happens.”

Trump has in recent weeks alternated between tough talk toward Iran and a more conciliatory message, insisting he is open to negotiations with the Islamic republic. He seemed to downplay the prospect of conflict when he spoke at the White House.

“Right now, I don’t think Iran wants to fight, and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us,” he said.

The administration notified Congress earlier in the day about the troop plans.

The forces would number “roughly” 1,500 and would deploy in the coming weeks, “with their primary responsibilities and activities being defensive in nature,” according to a copy of the notification obtained by The Associated Press.

Their mission would include protecting U.S. forces already in the region and ensuring freedom of navigation, the notification said.

Earlier this week, officials said Pentagon planners had outlined proposals that could have sent up to 10,000 military reinforcements to the region. Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan later said planners hadn’t settled on a figure.

It was not immediately clear where the troops would be stationed.

On Tuesday Iran’s foreign minister accused the U.S. of playing a “very dangerous” game. He was referring to America’s decision to move warships and bombers to the Persian Gulf and, more broadly, to the serious escalation of tensions between the two countries. Could the U.S. and Iran be headed for war? Today on Front Burner, Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, shares his thoughts on how relations took such a serious turn 20:41

The U.S. has tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East, including at a major navy base in Bahrain and an air force base and operations centre in Qatar. There are about 5,200 troops in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria.

Earlier this month, the U.S. sent thousands more into the region around Iran, including an aircraft carrier strike group, four bomber aircraft and fighter jets in response to the unspecified threat.

Democrats pan ’emergency’ for Saudi arms sales

Tension had been rising with Iran for more than a year. The Trump administration withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between the Islamic republic and world powers and reinstated American sanctions that have badly damaged the Iranian economy.

Trump has argued that the nuclear deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East that the U.S. argues destabilize the region, including through its support of Yemen’s Houthis in a protracted war with a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

The Trump administration on Friday invoked a rarely used provision in federal law to bypass congressional review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing threats the kingdom faces from Iran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress of the decision to use an emergency loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to move ahead with sales of $7 billion US in precision-guided munitions, other bombs and ammunition and aircraft maintenance support to Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, without lawmakers’ approval.

Acting U.S. Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak to reporters on Tuesday. Pompeo said arms sales were needed ‘in order to deter further the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region.’ (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)

In his notification, Pompeo said he had made the determination “that an emergency exists which requires the immediate sale” of the weapons “in order to deter further the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region.”

He said the transfers “must occur as quickly as possible in order to deter further Iranian adventurism in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East.”

Critics of the Saudi campaign quickly denounced Friday’s step.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate’s foreign relations committee, said the administration did not cite a specific legal or practical reason for using the loophole other than Iran.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised that the Trump administration has failed once again to prioritize our long-term national security interests or stand up for human rights, and instead is granting favours to authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia,” Menendez said in a statement.

Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, predicted earlier this week that the administration would use Iran as the rationale for sales that lawmakers would have blocked.

Congress had earlier voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in its Yemen war. The Senate this month did not have the required votes to override Trump’s subsequent veto.

“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale,” Murphy said. “There is no new ’emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis.”

The chairman of the foreign relations committee, Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, said he was “reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.”

Members of Congress have also been critical over the administration’s closeness with the Saudis, including what some saw as a muted response to the killing of U.S. citizen and journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul.

As well, the administration did not intervene in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. initiated an economic boycott of Qatar, despite the presence of American troops there.