President Donald Trump and his most senior Cabinet officials have a message for the leaders in Iran – it’s just not quite the same one.
National security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have threatened “unrelenting force” and “a swift and decisive response” to any Iranian provocation after saying intelligence indicates Tehran may intend to threaten US forces or allies in the region.
Asked Thursday if there’s a risk of military confrontation, Trump said, “I guess you could say that always, right?” and then delivered his central message. “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me,” the President said.
“What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down; we can make a deal, a fair deal. … We’re not looking to hurt Iran,” Trump said in remarks to reporters at the White House. “I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy. But they should call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them.”
A chat with Trump
If that wasn’t clear enough, on Thursday the White House asked the Swiss, their diplomatic representatives in Iran, to give leaders in Tehran a phone number in case they want to chat with Trump.
Trump may be engaging in a coordinated good cop-bad cop scenario, but people familiar with the matter say the disconnect may be driven in part by differences in Trump’s world view and his advisers’. The President, who has made clear he’s averse to foreign interventions, said Thursday that he acts to “temper” Bolton’s more aggressive impulses.
Iranian officials, perhaps sensing an opportunity, appear to be trying to weaponize the veteran adviser’s reputation as a hawkish proponent of military intervention and regime change in Iran to emphasize the distance between Trump and Bolton. And they’re pointing to Bolton’s history to back their counternarrative of war-hungry advisers surrounding Trump trying to trap Iran in a conflict.
“We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation, but we know that there are people who are pushing for one,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS News on April 28. That group, which Zarif dubbed the “B team,” includes Bolton, the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I believe the B Team does not have the same plan as President Trump ha s… not a plan but a plot that will cost” trillions, Zarif, alluding to the cost of US wars in the Middle East, said at an event at the Asia Society in New York on April 23.
“The plot is to push Iran into taking action. And then use that,” Zarif said.
“It is not a crisis yet, but it is a dangerous situation,” he added. “Accidents, plotted accidents, are possible. I wouldn’t discount the B team plotting an accident anywhere in the region.”
Others – including analysts and Trump critics – have picked up on the possibility that Bolton and others might be looking to trigger a fight.
Bolton announced on May 5 that the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln would be deployed to the Middle East as a warning to Iran because intelligence had surfaced indicating an Iranian threat. However, as analysts noted, US allies and other US officials including Pompeo and Chief of Naval Operations Navy Adm. John Richardson said the strike group deployment had been planned “for some time now.”