President Donald Trump appeared to contradict his most senior security officials Monday, downplaying recent attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman that his administration has blamed on Iran as “very minor.”
And days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration continues to consider military options for dealing with Iran, Trump dismissed the idea in an interview with Time Magazine. Asked whether he was considering military action against Tehran, the President told Time, “I wouldn’t say that. I can’t say that at all.” The President and his top US diplomat also diverged on the importance of an international shipping route crucial to the global economy.
The disconnect between Trump’s comments in the interview – in which he also warned that he would “certainly” go to war with Iran if the country develops nuclear weapons – and recent statements by Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton comes at a time of escalating military posturing between the two countries and heightened concerns about a confrontation.
Another Middle East conflict
Pompeo, speaking Tuesday after a visit to Central Command, the US military command center that oversees operations in the Middle East, said he’d coordinated with generals to make “sure we have the capability to respond If Iran makes a bad decision.”
Pompeo said he also discussed the Pentagon’s Monday announcement that the US will send 1,000 additional forces and more military resources to the Middle East, following the May deployment of a Navy strike group and a bomber task force to the region.
But over the past several weeks, Trump has maintained his skepticism about going to war with Iran in meetings with his national security team, an official said. Instead, the President has told his advisers he isn’t interested in wading into another conflict in the Middle East.
The official tells CNN that Trump’s description of Iran’s alleged attack on the Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers as “very minor” reflects his resistance to being pushed into a military conflict with Iran, particularly over vessels that were not US ships.
On Tuesday, Trump insisted his administration is prepared to confront Iran, but stopped well short of signaling any imminent military action. “We’re looking at Iran,” he told reporters at the White House. “We’re very prepared for Iran. We’ll see what happens.”
“They’ve been a nation of terror,” he continued. “Now we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what happens. They are a much different country today than they were two and a half years ago, when I came into office.”
Behind closed doors, Trump has also told his team that regime change should not be in the cards, a position he reiterated during a news conference in Japan at the end of May.
But Trump’s Cabinet officials have taken a series of steps that have helped propel tensions and led world leaders to call for an easing of tensions.
Speaking Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Pompeo said that “the United States is considering a full range of options.” When asked if a military response was included in that set of actions, Pompeo said, “Of course.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s announcement about the new troop deployments came hours after the Pentagon released video footage that it said showed Iran was behind the tanker attack. The attack took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route that sees passage of roughly 30% of the world’s sea-borne crude oil.
Both Pompeo and Bolton have issued statements blaming Iran for the mines placed on the tankers and Trump himself last week accused Iran of being behind the provocation, telling Fox News, “it was them that did it.”
‘A question mark’
Tehran has categorically denied the accusations, but it has ramped up diplomatic pressure. On Monday, Iran said it would raise enrichment of low-grade uranium beyond stockpile limits set by the 2015 international nuclear deal. Officials in Tehran have said Europe must make moves to help Iran’s economy benefit or it will take further action.
At this point Trump is not overly concerned with the rhetoric coming from his team, the official said, despite his earlier frustrations that advisers such as Bolton appeared to be getting out ahead of him.
At the same time, the official said, Trump has largely given up talk of starting a diplomatic channel, believing the Iranians aren’t interested in coming to some new agreement.
A second official said Trump, while keeping a close eye on the situation, has not voiced a firm view of how he wants to proceed going forward, instead asking for options without stating what his preferred end goal might be.
In his interview with Time, Trump laid out in greater specificity what kind of provocation he believes would justify military action. “I would certainly go over nuclear weapons … and I would keep the other a question mark,” Trump said, referring to the possibility of military action to protect oil supplies.
A second source with knowledge of the situation told CNN that the administration believes Iran is targeting tankers in an effort to “impact the oil market” and provoke Trump over an issue that they know he cares a lot about.
“Their message is if we can’t move oil through these points of transit, nobody will,” the source said. Iran has “openly stated that they would interfere with oil movement,” the source said, adding that “it hasn’t had much affect.”
Speaking to Time, Trump also downplayed the importance of the Gulf of Oman, suggesting that the US doesn’t rely on the region for oil and energy as much as other countries. “We’re not in the position that we used to be in, in the Middle East,” Trump said.
That stance is likely to unsettle allies in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, which rely on unimpeded shipping through the Gulf for their export; countries reliant on oil from the Middle East; as well as businesses, energy and insurance markets and stock exchanges the world over.
In contrast, Pompeo struck an entirely different note at Central Command, stressing the importance of those shipping lanes to the global economy.
‘The real threat’
“Every nation that has a deep interest in protecting that shipping lane, so that energy can move around the world and support their economies, needs to make sure they understand the real threat, the real threat to their interests in the region and the real threat to their countries’ economies if we’re not successful in doing that,” Pompeo said.
The mixed signals coming from the Trump administration have frustrated and unnerved allies, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said Tuesday.
“The administration has been going it alone, escalating pressure on Iran, reneging on the Iran nuclear deal,” Schiff, a California Democrat, told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.”
“And now, when you have Iran engaged in these provocative and belligerent acts attacking shipping, we can’t find our allies anywhere,” Schiff said. “They’re worried about this administration rushing to war. They don’t have trust in the administration. The administration has ignored their warnings.”
On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to reporters about US allegations about the tanker attacks. “Of course, we take these statements very seriously and there is also high evidence,” she said. “And that does not prevent me from saying that we do our best to resolve the situation of the conflict with Iran in peaceful ways. Germany is committed to that.”
“We have to be very, very careful here,” one European diplomat told CNN about the US charges against Tehran. “I’m not saying that I don’t share their assessment, I’m just saying that so far, we have not decided where we are at, basically, we’re still gathering information.”
Pompeo, speaking at Central Command Tuesday said that, the US would keep working with partners all around the world. “We’ll continue to provide additional information about those attacks,” he said.
CNN’s Joe Johns contributed to this report.