WASHINGTON >> It started with a surprise statement on a Sunday night that the U.S. was rushing military forces to counter alleged Iranian threats. What followed were two weeks of bombastic rhetoric and swells of fear and confusion over whether Washington and Tehran were lurching toward open conflict.
And that’s how President Donald Trump says he likes it.
“With all of the Fake and Made Up News out there,” Trump wrote today on Twitter, “Iran can have no idea what is actually going on.”
Later, in a speech to real estate agents, Trump made no effort to clarify, saying, “It’s probably a good thing because they’re saying, ‘Man, I don’t know where these people are coming from,’ right?”
It’s the latest manifestation of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy, which has made a virtue of keeping foes guessing and frequently leaves allies rattled and members of Congress frustrated.
“Given the degree to which the president has mischaracterized prior intelligence on other matters, or disputed the work product of the agencies when it contradicted his preferred narrative, his actions have generated understandable doubt on what we really know of Iranian plans and intentions,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Schiff, D-Calif., said Iran poses a real threat to the West and endorsed the administration’s warning to Iran that any attack on U.S. forces “would be disastrous” for Iran.
Armed conflict seemed unlikely in the short term, with no further U.S. buildup in the works and no fresh Iranian provocations. But neither did the administration appear closer to its stated goal of applying enough diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Tehran to compel it to end support for extremist groups and other disruptive policies.
The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and its battle group, whose accelerated deployment triggered the concern in some quarters about a drift toward conflict with Iran, had reached the waters of the Arabian Sea without incident, U.S. defense officials said today. It typically would proceed farther into the Persian Gulf and thus closer to Iran during such a deployment, though as a matter of policy the Navy does not disclose ship movements in advance.
The carrier is on an around-the-world deployment and was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea when John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, announced on May 5 that it had been ordered to the Middle East, along with an aircraft bomber group, in response to “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” The unusual Sunday night announcement raised questions — many still unanswered — about exactly what new threats Iran had posed.
Other officials later said Iran had loaded fully assembled ballistic missiles aboard small boats in Iranian territorial waters. This suggested the possibility of an Iranian intent to threaten Western military or commercial ships, though that threat seems not to have materialized. Last weekend, four non-U.S. commercial vessels were damaged in the Gulf, and while details are unclear, U.S. officials said it appeared likely that Iran had a hand in the apparent sabotage.
Some analysts see the administration’s military moves as a deliberate effort to put Iran’s leaders on edge, perhaps with the broader goal of encouraging them to take Trump up on his offer of direct talks.
“I think it was a well-coordinated psyops campaign,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Psyops” is a reference to psychological operations aimed at influencing or intimidating an adversary.
If that is the case, the administration’s moves also managed to unnerve and confound many in Congress as well as some American allies, who openly expressed worry that Washington could be drifting toward armed conflict with Iran.
Concerns escalated further with the State Department’s announcement this week that it was pulling all nonessential employees out of Iraq. Officials later said this was a precaution and not a sign of impending military action.
Top leaders in Congress received a classified briefing on Iran on Thursday, but many other lawmakers from both parties have criticized the White House for not keeping them informed. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other top officials are expected to brief members of the Senate behind closed doors on Tuesday. The House also has requested a briefing.
Trump complained today about news coverage of Iran developments, particularly those reports suggesting that he was at odds with Bolton and others in his administration who have most vocally advocated confrontation with Iran.
“They put out so many false messages that Iran is totally confused,” Trump said in his speech to the real estate agents. “I don’t know, that might be a good thing.”
Trump said on Thursday he hoped the U.S. was not on a path to war with Iran, and a day earlier he expressed a desire for dialogue, tweeting, “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.” But Tehran has showed no outward sign of preparing to talk.
Trump’s recent tone contrasted with a series of moves by the U.S. and Iran that have sharply escalated tensions in the Middle East in recent days.
Today, an official with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard warned that Iranian missiles can “easily reach warships” in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East. The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Mohammad Saleh Jokar as saying that Iran’s missiles have a range of 2,000 kilometers — about 1,250 miles— and can attack any target in the region.
Iran poses a particular challenge for Trump. While he talks tough against foreign adversaries to the delight of his supporters, a military confrontation with Iran could make him appear to be backtracking on a campaign pledge to keep America out of foreign entanglements.
Tensions started to spiral last year when Trump pulled out of a deal the U.S. and other world powers had signed with Iran during the Obama administration. The deal lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbing of its nuclear program.