Trump tells his team to tone down the tough talk on Iran

The Daily Beast | Erin Banco: President Donald Trump has privately pushed his representatives to walk back their tough talk on Iran—and reiterate that the administration is not aiming to go to war with Tehran.

Two senior officials and three other individuals with direct knowledge of the administration’s strategy in the region tell The Daily Beast that the president has asked officials to tone down their heated rhetoric on Iran, despite the attacks on tanker ships in the Gulf of Oman that Washington has blamed on Tehran. The president has previously said he is less hawkish on Iran than some of his advisers and this week, in a Time magazine interview, said the attacks on the tankers were “very minor.”

Over the last several days in public testimony and in closed-door briefings, Trump administration officials have tried to calm lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are wary of the administration evading Congress to launch a military confrontation with Tehran. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It’s a major change in tone from the Trump administration. As recently as a few days ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CBS Face the Nation that everything was on the table when it came to Iran, including military action. And National Security Adviser John Bolton has pushed internally for a confrontation with Tehran. “If you cross us, our allies or our partners, you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay,” Bolton said in New York last year.

In contrast, State Department Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said during a hearing in front of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Wednesday that “there is no talk of offensive action” within the administration when it comes to Iran.

“No one should be uncertain about our desire for peace or our readiness to normalize relations should we reach a comprehensive deal,” Hook said. “We have put the possibility of a much brighter future on the table for the Iranian people, and we mean it.” He added that the administration is willing to negotiate with Iran but only when “the time is right.”

The new narrative has confused lawmakers on the Hill who, over the last few weeks, have raised concerns that the Trump administration appeared to have inflated Iranian intel and led the U.S. down the path of a military confrontation with Tehran. Now, with the administration pushing back on that notion, lawmakers are once again asking, what’s the plan?

“I don’t think they have an [end game]. And that’s very concerning to me,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). “I don’t think they have a clear strategy, and I certainly don’t think they’ve articulated what the objectives are. It seems as though they were intent on blowing up the [nuclear deal] and withdrawing from that agreement and now they are in the position of trying to build a coalition with our allies to keep pressure on Iran and not violate an agreement we withdrew from. It’s sort of an absurdity.”

During the hearing, in which Cicilline took part, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) pressed Hook on what exactly he understood to be the administration’s strategy on Iran moving forward.

“We are getting messages from different parts of the administration,” Malinowski said. “What I hear from you is very different [than what I hear from the president],” adding that the president’s tweets seemed to focus on changing Iran’s behavior in regard to the nuclear deal.

“But what I hear from you is that our policy is to bankrupt Iran until they meet… demands that include basically cutting off ties with all of their proxies in the region. So which is it?”

Hook said the administration’s strategy was two-fold, with two primary objectives.

“First, to deprive the Iranian regime of the money it needs to support its destabilizing activities. Second, to bring Iran to the negotiating table,” Hook said, adding that the strategy included getting “a new and better [nuclear] deal.”

Lawmakers were eager to get clarification on whether the administration thought it could use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and go around Congress to engage militarily with Iran.

Hook refused to answer questions from lawmakers about the administration’s position on the AUMF regarding Iran but said, “We will do everything we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers and we will comply with the law.” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) announced on Monday that they are introducing a resolution that would block the administration from going to war with Iran on the basis of the 2001 AUMF.

Hook’s testimony comes amid increased tensions between Washington and Tehran, reaching another peak last week when the U.S. claimed Iran attacked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. and Iran have engaged in a tit-for-tat escalation over the last month, feeding fears on Capitol Hill that the two countries are on a crash course that would likely end in a direct military conflict.

It all began in May when the U.S. sent B-52 bombers and tankers to the Persian Gulf in a show of force against Tehran after the Trump administration claimed there were new “threat streams” that called for the deployment. For a time, Congress was in the dark on the intelligence. Sources briefed on it said the Trump administration blew the threat reports out of proportion and said there was no sign of an imminent threat to U.S. military forces in the region. Shortly afterwards, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan claimed that the troop movements had “deterred attacks” against American forces in the region.

This week, the Pentagon announced that it was sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Iran’s presence in the region.

Hook also met behind closed doors with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday. He will head to the Middle East Wednesday night to meet with regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, in advance of the Bahrain conference where the U.S. plans to unveil part of its peace plan.