Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a news conference in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday. (Pavel Golovkin/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Columnist

To listen to most Democrats or television pundits, one could believe Trump administration officials are intentionally and recklessly trying to provoke a war with Iran, trapping a reluctant president in a costly conflict that would imperil U.S. security and his own political future. In fact, that’s not their aim. But their strategy to combine “maximum pressure” and “deterrence” is difficult and risky.

To be sure, the Trump administration is partially responsible for the widespread confusion over its Iran policy. The administration has failed to explain adequately the intelligence on new Iranian threats and failed to articulate for the American people and Congress what its responses are meant to achieve. Several senior administration officials briefed a small group of journalists Thursday morning to set the record straight.

In sum, they say their goal is not to spark a conflict but to combine their ever-intensifying pressure campaign with deterrence against Iran’s response to that strategy. It’s a complicated gambit.

“We are restoring deterrence while working toward a new and better deal. We lost deterrence under the Iran deal. This policy course correction was unavoidable and long overdue,” said Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran. The Trump administration has tried to intensify the pressure on Iran by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions, trying to force Iran’s oil exports “to zero” and designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization.

“Because we are applying levels of pressure that don’t have any historic precedent, I think we can expect Iran to increase its threats and to increase its malign behavior,” a senior administration official said.

There’s widespread suspicion of a repeat of the intelligence failures and misrepresentations that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In itself, Iran threatening attacks on U.S. interests isn’t new. Yet officials say the threat level is rising. The administration is prudently moving people and equipment to strengthen the deterrence factor.

The White House is trying to convince Iran’s leaders that any attack on U.S. interests would be met with overwhelming retaliation, so they ought not try it. Essentially, Washington is telling Tehran to just take the pain.

Of course, Iran can get out from under the pressure by meeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands for changing its foreign policy and returning to the table to give President Trump a “better deal.” But as that isn’t likely, the Trump administration plans to keep tightening the noose and warning Tehran not to do anything violent.

“The burden is on Iran to behave like a normal nation. The burden is not on us to relax our pressure,” Hook said.

When Pompeo visited Brussels this week, he asked European leaders to use their influence to persuade the Iranian regime to unilaterally de-escalate, officials said. They argued that Pompeo’s effort undermines the idea that the administration is trying to provoke Iran to attack us as a pretext for a U.S. invasion.

There’s deep concern on Capitol Hill about how the administration is managing the risk of escalation spiraling out of control. Senators and staffers told me the recent attacks on Saudi oil assets — believed to be part of Iran’s response — present a vexing challenge because it’s not clear how the United States or the Saudis will respond.

The administration is being careful not to attribute the attacks to Iran until the investigation is complete. Some might say officials are avoiding making a decision on whether to respond. Again, this undermines the idea that they are spoiling for war.

There are differences among Trump officials, but those largely center around which pressure tactics to apply and at what pace. There is no clear diplomatic off-ramp, but there is a channel through the Swiss that Trump is clearly exploring. Trump said on Twitter he is “sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

Trump is reportedly frustrated with national security adviser John Bolton and thinks he’s too hawkish, but that’s not new, either. Bolton has long supported regime change in Iran, but that’s not the same as orchestrating an armed conflict intentionally.

There are ample grounds to criticize the policy on its merits. Has the maximum-pressure strategy worked anywhere so far? Why should we expect European countries to help us de-escalate an Iran crisis they blame us for provoking? Where exactly is our threshold for retaliation? Can we really depend on Saudi Arabia not to overreact? If the administration has answers to these questions, they still seem to be classified.

But these tense times call for more restraint, less speculation and less hyperbole. The Trump administration must be more transparent about its complicated, risky strategy. But understanding what it is actually doing — and dealing with that honestly — is the best way to prevent the disastrous war we are all trying to avoid.

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