NYT: No war with Iran, Trump tells defense secretary

I’m imagining him on the campaign trail next year, boasting to a crowd how he kept America out of war despite the dastardly efforts of … his own advisors.

And you know what? That might be an effective pitch. Even those who have no use for Trump in most matters will appreciate his instinctive skepticism of official Washington’s bent toward intervention.

Trump the Iran war opponent versus Biden the Iraq war supporter. An interesting choice for voters who otherwise dislike Trump’s foreign policy.

President Trump has told his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, according to several administration officials, in a message to his hawkish aides that an intensifying American pressure campaign against the clerical-led government in Tehran must not escalate into open conflict…

No new intelligence on Iran’s activities was presented at the meeting, according to a person in the room. But Mr. Trump was firm in saying he did not want a military clash with the Iranians, several officials said

Mr. Bolton, officials said, has quietly voiced frustration with the president, viewing him as unwilling to push for changes in a region that he has long seen as a quagmire. That, in turn, has led people in the White House to view Mr. Bolton with deepening skepticism, with some questioning whether his job is in trouble.

His job should be in trouble, if only because his view of interventionism is terribly mismatched with Trump’s. But how many would-be Republican replacements are out there who are (a) dovish in the same ways that Trump is but also (b) sufficiently expert in foreign policy that they’re qualified to be National Security Advisor? The post-9/11 GOP is thick with hawks.

Which is not to say that Trump was right to hand the job to one of the most hawkish among them just because he was good at tough-guy talk during Fox News hits.

Anyway, the Times reported this morning that the alleged threat from Iran stems from photos taken in the Persian Gulf of Iranian naval craft carrying fully assembled missiles. Other intelligence picked up chatter about possible attacks on U.S. commercial interests in the region and even American troops and diplomats in Iraq, with the chatter reportedly unusually frequent and specific. It looks to Bolton like Iran is planning an attack on U.S. forces on land and/or at sea; it looks to others like Iran is simply reacting defensively to U.S. saber-rattling. Either way, the British government is backing the intelligence up. A few days after a British general told the media that he’d seen no evidence of Iranian escalation in the region, the Foreign Secretary said today that “We share the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran” as the U.S.

Question, then: Was Trump’s directive in the Situation Room about avoiding war designed to be leaked? Maybe POTUS is nervous that if he doesn’t do something to defuse this right now there’s apt to be a “misunderstanding” in which the Iranians start firing at us or vice versa and suddenly “strength” requires war. Maybe he told Shanahan “no war” expecting that the papers would pick it up and get the message to Iran, even at the risk of projecting weakness. Or maybe he’s just annoyed with all the war chatter lately insofar as it implies that his hawkish NSA, not the president, is calling the shots here. I said yesterday in this post that if you want to motivate Trump to assert himself against Bolton, the shrewdest thing you can do is suggest that he’s being manipulated by his deputy. Trump didn’t like it when Steve Bannon was depicted as his “svengali,” he didn’t like it when John Kelly was portrayed as having brought order to the Oval Office, and he’s not going to like hearing that John Bolton is running U.S. foreign policy. And sure enough:

What Trump seems to want from this latest standoff with Iran is a replay of North Korea. First come the threats, then come the sanctions, then comes an unlikely diplomatic breakthrough in which the formerly belligerent enemy regime sits down at the bargaining table with President Deals for a charm offensive. (Per the Times, Trump even told his advisors in today’s meeting that he believes Iran “will want to talk soon.”) Iran might be even more appealing to Trump than North Korea in that regard since a diplomatic deal with Tehran was Obama’s big foreign policy “achievement.” Reaching a grand bargain with Iran on terms favorable to the U.S. would be a massive case of oneupsmanship by Trump over his predecessor, which would gratify him on a deep level. But how can it happen? Trump’s administration is teeming with Iran hawks, and Iran would surely demand, at a minimum, that Trump drop sanctions and revert to the Obama-era status quo on the nuclear deal before agreeing to talk.

Watch this short but insightful clip of WaPo’s fopo expert, David Ignatius, assessing relations between Trump and Iran at the moment. The sanctions *are* working, Ignatius says, but they may be working too well: Rather than wait Trump out, the mullahs may feel obliged to do something desperate. And no one knows what happens if Iran decides not to follow the Kim Jong Un model and continues to reject talks with Trump despite the pressure campaign against them. China has refused to do a deal on trade, Ignatius notes, and Trump’s reaction has been to escalate and expand tariffs. If Iran refuses to do a deal, how does he escalate the standoff with them? Especially with John Bolton there by his side, egging him on to be tough? Exit question: Is it useful for America’s enemies to know that the president has a “no war” policy? There’s a reason why commanders-in-chief always say “all options are on the table” when asked about such things.