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.”
‘Rebranding a routine deployment’
The US took another step Friday to bolster its military presence in the Middle East, saying it will deploy additional Patriot missile defense systems.
The Eurasia Group noted on May 6 that “even if Bolton was simply rebranding a routine deployment” in his announcement, “the blunt language in the statement seems designed to intimidate and potentially provoke the Iranian leadership to lash out.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, noted the recent flurry of administration moves against Iran, including moving to cut off Iranian oil exports, designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, and sending military assets to the region. Taken together, they “may provoke a response,” he warned.
“John Bolton’s views on Iran are well known,” Schiff said in a May 7 statement. “If President Trump does not wish to stumble into a new and devastating military conflict, I hope that he will listen to the counsel of other advisers and seek to reduce tensions.”
But a day after Trump made such a gesture, saying he’d like Iran’s leaders to “call me,” a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander said Iran would not engage in talks.
“Negotiations with Americans will not take place,” Lieutenant Commander for Political Affairs Brigadier General Yadollah Javani told the semi-official Tasnim News Agency. “Americans will not dare to take military action against us,” he added.
Zarif made a similar declaration to CBS in late April.
“We cannot meet somebody who is not respectful, who has violated his country’s international obligations, who has withdrawn from agreements,” he said, referring to NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO and other agreements beyond the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“You don’t meet for a photo op,” he remarked.
A freer hand
Bolton’s penchant for ratcheting up tensions has at times caused anxiety in other areas of the administration, according to people familiar with the matter. The former Fox News pundit enjoys an open-door policy with the President and spends more time with him than any other member of the national security team, those sources said.
Those hawkish tendencies and easy access to Trump have sometimes left other members of Trump’s foreign policy circle scrambling. Last year, Bolton’s request for military options for Iran caused concern among some Pentagon officials, sources tell CNN.
The dynamic wasn’t as pronounced when key administration posts were filled with officials viewed as steadying forces – such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis or former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – according to the people familiar with the matter.
But with those officials gone, Bolton has appeared to have a freer hand – leaving some officials at the State Department and the Pentagon mindful of taking steps that would keep him in check.
Even Trump has at times commented on his national security adviser’s hawkish reputation, saying if Bolton had his way, he’d already be at war in multiple places. According to sources familiar, Trump expressed concern last week at the overt allusions to military options when it comes to Venezuela and told his team instead to stick to the line that “all options are on the table.”
Those sources say Trump is urging caution in Venezuela among advisers and expressing frustration that some aides, including Bolton, are more openly teasing military intervention.
However, in public, Trump has long chafed at any suggestion his decisions or actions are being manipulated or orchestrated by someone other than himself. Trump was asked Thursday about Bolton in light of recent turmoil in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran – all places where the US has taken a strong stand without much progress. He said his national security adviser has “strong views,”
“I actually temper John,” he said to laughter.
“I have John Bolton and I have other people that are a little more dovish than him and ultimately I make the decision,” Trump said.
Other senior officials around Trump have indicated there’s no plan for conflict with Iran. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told CBS Takeout podcast the movement of US assets to the Middle East was justified after reports of a specific credible threat from Iran to US military, However, he added emphatically, “We are not going to war in Iran. I think what you’re gonna see is us over there to enforce and protect our interests.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Kylie Atwood, Betsy Klein, Jennifer Hansler, Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, Michelle Kosinski, Hamdi Alkhshali and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report