(Persia Digest) - Confidants say the president may talk tough, but he’s deeply reluctant to drag the United States into a fresh war in the Middle East.
Politico reports that 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.”
At the same time, Trump has flashes of private regret about his only new military intervention in the region: airstrikes against Bashar Assad’s government in Syria. Trump has told confidants that he wishes those 2017 and 2018 attacks, which targeted Syrian facilities after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, had inflicted more damage.
“He heard a lot of criticism about it from multiple sources,” said a person close to the White House. One former U.S. official familiar with Middle Eastern policy said Trump “wishes he’d put a missile in Assad’s palace.”
While the attacks temporarily stopped Syria from using more chemical weapons against its own citizens, Assad is still in charge and, according to the Global Policy Institute, has used some form of chemical weapons more than 60 times during Trump’s time in office. That’s added to the more traditional violence Assad has inflicted on civilians in a war estimated to have killed more than half a million people.
“At best, they were an inconvenience for the regime, but they had no impact on the trajectory of the conflict,” Wa’el Alzayat, a former State Department official who dealt with Syria, said of the U.S. airstrikes.
The White House declined to comment on the president’s internal deliberations. 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 U.S. and Tehran; Ric Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany; anti-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.); and Freedom Caucus stalwart Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. official. “They used to refer to Mattis as being far too restrained on Iran,” this person said, referring to former Secretary of Defense 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and/or Saudi Arabia to request an emergency meeting of the U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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. But Iran has arguably become more emboldened since then, taking more steps to restart its nuclear program.
“The president stands by his decision to not retaliate against the Iran attack on a U.S. drone because of the potential loss of life,” said one of the people close to the White House. “His concern was that Iran would escalate attacks on other interests in the region. The president has shown great restraint, but advisers have encouraged some action.”
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 U.S. strength,” a European diplomat said. “At the same time, the elections are approaching and the last thing he can wish is to draw the U.S. 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.
But if investigators determine Tehran is the culprit, others said, Trump may need to act — or at least help the Saudis do so.
“I’m a little concerned that he’ll go full Trumpian and greenlight a Saudi retaliation,” said Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that advocates a hard line against Iran. Dubowitz said such a “worst case scenario” could lead Riyadh to act with impunity if Trump kept the U.S. out of the fray, and that could prompt a serious Iranian retaliation that leads to an escalating cycle of violence.
“I’m of the view, based on decades of [Iranian] revolutionary response to American power, that if the United States uses military power, the regime is likely to back down, not escalate. If the Saudis use military power, the regime is likely to escalate,” Dubowitz said.
As for Iran, said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the newly formed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s latest comments suggest there is still room for dialogue, if not negotiations.
The distinction matters, he said, because Iran may be looking for political room to maneuver.
“If they show themselves too weak, too afraid of an American response, their calculation is it will be more likely that Trump will take military action,” Parsi said. “It’s immensely risky, but it has to be weighed against the risk of Iran sitting there watching Trump cost-free crushing Iran’s economy.”
Click here for more political news.