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Trump wary of plunging into Iran war ahead of re-election

May 17, 2019

President Donald Trump is wary of drawing the U.S. into a war with Iran, in part out of concern that an armed conflict with the Islamic Republic would imperil his chances at winning a second term, according to people familiar with the matter.

There is division within the administration over the approach to Iran, some of the people said. At the same time, the president is cognizant that he was elected in part on promises to withdraw the U.S. from Middle East wars – not start new ones, they said.

Privately, Trump has said he doesn’t want war with Iran, one person familiar with the matter said. “I hope not,” Trump told reporters on Thursday when asked about the prospect of war before a meeting with Swiss President Ueli Maurer.

National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have recently warned Iran against provocations in increasingly bellicose language, raising concerns in Congress and among some Trump advisers that the president is preparing for war.

Since withdrawing from the 2015 agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Trump has steadily ratcheted up U.S. tensions with Tehran. But Republican strategists said he can’t be seen as a warmonger in a re-election match-up with Democrats such as former Vice President Joe Biden or Senator Bernie Sanders.

“He can’t be out there being the guy advocating for military involvement when for so long his brand has been going in the opposite direction,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute who previously advised Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

Saber-rattling

At the same time, Chen said, Trump’s base wants him to show that the U.S. won’t be pushed around. Mere saber-rattling, he said, is unlikely to erode Trump’s political support as long as the economy remains strong.

And there is uncertainty among some of Trump’s political advisers about whether an Iran war would surely damage his re-election prospects. One person close to Trump observed that President George W. Bush won a second term after starting two wars, and another suggested the American public might rally around the president in the event hostilities broke out with Tehran.

Democrats have trained much of their criticism on Bolton, infamous for helping Bush make a case for war against Iraq in 2003 that turned out to be built on fake or nonexistent intelligence.

“I remain mystified that anybody who had any hand in allowing for the Iraq war has any business near the situation room right now,” Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor running for the Democratic nomination, said at a campaign event at the City Club of Chicago on Thursday.

The U.S. hastened the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf this month and sent bombers and a Patriot anti-missile battery to the region as a result of unexplained Iranian threats. In addition, the State Department withdrew much of its diplomatic staff from Iraq this week. The Pentagon is working to declassify and release images that back up the Trump administration’s claim of an increased threat, including pictures of two Iranian boats carrying cruise missiles, in response to pressure from skeptical allies and U.S. lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, warned the administration on Thursday that it has no congressional authorization to take military action against Iran.

“I like what I hear from the president that he has no appetite for this,” she said. “Even though some of his supporters are rattling sabers.”

But Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who has seen some intelligence related to Iran, said he opposes what he called a Bolton strategy of ratcheting up confrontations with Tehran and ditching the nuclear deal. He said he worried that a “Gulf of Tonkin moment” could draw America into war, referring to the mysterious naval incident that precipitated deeper U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Swiss meeting

Trump has said in tweets that he hopes to meet or speak with Iran’s leaders, but the country’s vice president said Thursday they will only talk to the U.S. if it rejoins the 2015 accord.

One person familiar with the matter said Trump’s meeting with Maurer, the Swiss president, was symbolic: Were he planning for war, the person said, Trump would be seen motorcading to the Pentagon for briefings – not meeting with the president of neutral Switzerland.

The two leaders discussed “crises in the Middle East and in Venezuela,” the White House said in a statement, and Trump “expressed his gratitude for Switzerland’s role in facilitating international mediation and diplomatic relations on behalf of the United States.”

Trump has insisted there’s no “infighting” within his administration on Iran policy and that he alone will decide the U.S. course. He offered again to talk with the Iranians in a tweet on Wednesday that seemed intended to lower the temperature in the dispute.

Still, Pompeo’s position differs from Bolton’s. While Bolton has long promoted regime change in Iran, Pompeo favors changing the current government’s behavior.

“Our aim is not war,” Pompeo said in a May 13 interview with CNBC. “Our aim is a change in the behavior of the Iranian leadership.”

Similarly, Trump has said he would talk to Iran’s current leadership, without advocating for a change in the government first.

“The president has been clear, the United States does not seek military conflict with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership,” Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement. “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we will protect U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”

Outside of meetings with his national security advisers, Trump doesn’t bring up Iran nearly as much as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, two people familiar with the matter said – an indication he’s not stewing over a potential Mideast conflagration.

With assistance from Daniel Flatley, Tony Capaccio, Emma Kinery and Steven T. Dennis.

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