Trump Leans against Striking Iran
By Staff, Politico
As President Donald Trump decides whether to strike Iran, the specter of his past military interventions is looming large over the choice before him now.
Trump is reluctant to take military action in the Middle East because he wants to live up to his campaign vows to reduce foreign entanglements, according to multiple people who speak with him regularly. He’s also worried about the economic and political ramifications of embroiling the United States in a war with Iran, which stands accused of the recent attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
The president has hinted publicly at those concerns in recent days, saying on Monday afternoon, “Do I want war? I don’t want war with anybody. I’m somebody that would like not to have war,” while also warning, “We’re prepared more than anybody.”
The White House declined to comment on the president’s internal deliberations regarding Syria. But when it comes to Iran, Trump is consulting a wide range of inputs.
Over the past 10 days, about a dozen outside advisers have weighed in with him on Iran, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has tried to mediate between the US and Tehran; Ric Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany; anti-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul; and Freedom Caucus stalwart Rep. Mark Meadows, according to a Washington Republican familiar with the president’s conversations.
Many – but not all – of those voices are urging Trump to show restraint, this person said.
Others are recommending that the US be part of some kind of a multilateral response in the Middle East to the alleged Iranian attack, possibly in concert with Saudi Arabia.
While Trump’s natural inclination is not to attack Iran, pressure is building for the US and Trump to respond, said another person close to the White House.
Trump was publicly and privately critical of former national security adviser John Bolton, who often urged more aggressive action than the president was willing to take. Bolton, who was fired last week, “was pushing us into a war with Iran, so I think he felt like he was stopping that” and Trump has wanted more of “a pathway towards peace,” according to one of the people close to the White House.
But Trump still has an NSC team that “is incredibly hawkish, hawkish beyond any logical reason” on Iran, said the former US official. “They used to refer to Mattis as being far too restrained on Iran,” this person said, referring to former Secretary of War James Mattis, “even though Mattis is a guy who is as hawkish as a guy than anybody.”
For now, Trump himself is talking tough but not promising action. “Remember when Iran shot down a drone, saying knowingly that it was in their ‘airspace’ when, in fact, it was nowhere close. They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie. Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see?” he tweeted Monday.
“He likes to talk a big game and he likes the kind of policies that look tough, but when those policies meet the real world, he’s very reluctant to follow through,” the former US official said.
On Monday, the White House had a so-called principals meeting of top national security officials to discuss options the administration’s options.
Trump emerged from the meeting with no discernible shift in posture, telling reporters, “We have military power the likes of which the world has never seen. I’m not concerned at all. I’d like to avoid it.”
And, in a further suggestion that military action was not imminent, he announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be headed to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week, where he is expected to discuss ways to counter Iran.
One option could be to gather up evidence of Iranian involvement in the attack and for the US and/or Saudi Arabia to request an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to present the evidence and point the finger at the Iranians, said a person close to the White House.
Other options could include cyberstrikes, like the ones the president authorized after Iran’s alleged attacks on oil tankers earlier this year, or further economic sanctions.
But the attacks in Saudi Arabia, at least for now, have halted the president’s efforts to bring Iran to the negotiating table.
While there had been some speculation that Trump would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, that’s now unlikely. Trump this week denied he had ever sought to enter talks with Iran without preconditions – even though he and Pompeo had previously said exactly that.
“He thinks that somehow if there’s a meeting that magically they’re going to change,” said another person close to the White House.
In June, Trump was poised to strike Iran in retaliation for taking out a US drone but called off the strike at the last minute after talking to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who urged caution.
The president “was very happy at the time” that he didn’t carry out the attack and bragged about his restraint, according to another person close to the president.
At the time, the administration’s internal position was that only an American casualty could prompt military retaliation.
Foreign diplomats who spoke with Politico on Tuesday said they perceived caution in Trump’s handling of Iran, not least because of 2020 campaign considerations.
“He’s somebody who wants to show US strength,” a European diplomat said. “At the same time, the elections are approaching and the last thing he can wish is to draw the US into a protracted conflict.”
Yet Trump’s constant shifting – which he’s described as a negotiating tactic in the past – can undermine not only his credibility but also that of his aides, noted Heather Hurlburt, an analyst with New America. Pompeo, for example, quickly and explicitly blamed Tehran for the Saudi attack, while Trump has yet to explicitly finger Iran.