President Trump in an interview published Monday night characterized alleged attacks by Iran against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman as “very minor” and suggested that the United States might not go to war to protect international oil supplies.
Trump’s assessment in Time magazine reflected a softer posture than that of senior administration officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as some congressional Republicans, as tensions between the United States and Iran have flared recently.
In the interview, Trump said he would “certainly” go to war to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
“I would keep the other a question mark,” he said when asked whether he would take military action in response to attacks on oil tankers.
Last week, Trump administration officials blamed Iran for attacks against Norwegian and Japanese tankers carrying petrochemicals.
“So far, it’s been very minor,” Trump told Time, referring to those and other recent attacks the United States has blamed on Iran.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers pushed back on the thought that last week’s tanker attacks were “very minor” — and that Trump would even think that.
“He sure didn’t suggest that to me Sunday,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), referring to a Father’s Day golf game he played with the president. “He was very upset about where Iran’s going. You can’t have provocative acts by rogue regimes go unanswered.”
The proper course, Graham continued would be to “cripple” Tehran’s ability to perform similar acts, by “attacking naval forces that have been the chief military force against tankers and our vessels.”
Graham stressed that “nobody’s talking about invading Iran, nobody’s talking about an Iraq war” — even as he advocated “blowing up” Iranian oil refineries that are “the lifeblood of their economies.”
Democrats in both chambers of Congress are seeking votes on amendments to the annual defense bill that would require the president to seek authorization before engaging militarily with Iran. Republicans argued Tuesday that the administration already has the requisite legal instruments and doesn’t need to seek Congress’ permission.
“The legal justification is self-defense,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Said Graham: “I think there’s plenty of laws on the books to allow the president to defend our forces, to defend navigation of the seas.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a new deployment of 1,000 troops to the Middle East was intended “to deter aggression.”
“President Trump does not want war,” Pompeo said during a visit to the United States Central Command (Centcom) headquarters in Tampa, which overseas military operations in the Middle East.
He also said that “40 years of Iranian activity . . . has led us to this point” and that “we shouldn’t focus on just those two attacks.”
In its effort to convince other nations of Iran’s culpability, the Pentagon released several photographs Monday that it said showed Iran’s involvement in the tanker attacks more clearly than a grainy video released last week.
Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan also announced Monday that he was sending the 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East “for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats.”
“The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region,” he said in a statement.
Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration is considering a “full range of options” in response to the tanker attacks beyond the crippling sanctions it already has imposed, including on Iran’s oil exports.
“Of course, of course,” Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday when asked if those options include military action.
Trump told Time that the Gulf of Oman is less strategically important for the United States than it used to be.
“Other places get such vast amounts of oil there,” he said. “We get very little. We have made tremendous progress in the last two and a half years in energy . . . So we’re not in the position that we used to be in the Middle East where . . . some people would say we were there for the oil.”
Meanwhile, Iran said Monday that its stockpile of enriched uranium will surpass limits set by the 2015 international nuclear deal in 10 days unless European partners in the agreement do more to help it circumvent U.S. sanctions.
The announcement, made by the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was the first time Tehran explicitly said it was on track to violate the agreement.
Asked about Trump’s comments to Time on Tuesday morning, Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the movement of vessels in the area has changed very little and the maritime industry is still moving oil and petroleum products through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf largely at the same volume as a couple of weeks ago.
“To the ship’s masters, they are major attacks, right? If somebody puts a hole in your ship, that’s a big thing. If somebody starts a fire on your ship, that’s a big thing,” Selva said. “In the scheme of the amount of shipping that moves through . . . two ships this week and four ships four weeks ago is a relatively small interruption in the movement of product through the Strait of Hormuz.”
The sophistication of the attacks on the tankers as well as the evidence point toward Iran, Selva said, noting that Tehran is under significant pressure both economically and politically to come to the table and negotiate on its nuclear energy program and other issues. He said it was lashing out at the international community as a result.
“The point of fact is they are under significant pressure. The attacks themselves are not alleged; they’re real. The only perpetrator in the area that has a motive to perpetrate them is Iran. The evidence points toward Iran,” Selva said.
“And the fact that they were able to quickly and safely remove a mine from the side of a ship would indicate that it was of their own design, of their own emplacement, and they took it into their custody so that it wouldn’t be available as evidence that they perpetrated the attack,” he added.
The top U.S. general said the risks of miscalculation are real, so the Pentagon has sought to very carefully send a message to the Iranian regime, to the Iranian regular forces and to the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force that engaging American forces or national interests in the region is a dangerous thing to do and will result in a response.
“It is a fair assessment that our history in the region is we have threatened to respond but not responded,” Selva said. “That would be a miscalculation on the part of the Iranians to believe that that’s going to persist.”
Selva said he believed the U.S. government had sent messages via Iraq, Switzerland and public statements to the Iranian government saying: “Hands off. Don’t come after our forces.”
Unlike during the so-called Tanker War of the 1980s, when the U.S. Navy escorted oil tankers in the region to protect them from Iranian attacks and ensure the continuity of American oil supply, the United States is no longer so reliant on imports of oil from the Persian Gulf, Selva said.
The general said he believed the top five countries importing oil from the region were China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 16 percent of U.S. petroleum imports came from the Persian Gulf in 2018.
“We are now in a position where the bulk of that oil goes to five countries in Asia,” Selva said. “And none of those countries have actually shown any real predilection to press the Iranians to stop what they’re doing.”
He said, as a result, it would be ill-advised for the United States military to apply the same method of protecting the oil supply from the region as it did in the 1980s. He said the United States still has a significant role to play in guaranteeing freedom of navigation, but suggested it should be an international effort, and noted that the State Department was planning on reaching out to the biggest importers from the region if it hadn’t already.
“I’m not suggesting for a moment that we don’t have a significant role to play in that space but it will require an international consensus before force is used with one specific caveat: if the Iranians come after U.S. citizens, U.S. assets or U.S. military, we reserve the right to respond with a military action — and they need to know that, it needs to be very clear,” Selva said.
The Pentagon still doesn’t know whether Iran intended to strike the Japanese vessel specifically because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran at the time.
“If they hit a Japanese ship just by pure serendipity, okay that’s just an unfortunate choice,” Selva said. “If they targeted the vessel, they were sending a very specific message to the Japanese. And I don’t know which one it was.”
He said the vessels were targeted either specifically because of their provenance or because they were targets of opportunity within proximity to Iranian activities. He noted the Iranians have not chosen to attack any American vessels.
Selva said he didn’t believe the attacks would have been opportunistic activity by a lower-level commander. Though he said he had no specific evidence, he said it would be hard to believe that Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, would not have been aware of the attacks, based on how the Iranian system works.
The general said the intelligence community was still continuing to work on compiling evidence regarding attribution for the attacks. He said the attachment piece for the mine that was left behind on one of the vessels — depicted in photographs the Pentagon released Monday night — is theoretically attributable.
“If it can be attributed directly to Iran, then it’s a pointer toward their complicity in what was going on,” Selva said. “We’re just going to have to continue to work on that.”
Karen DeYoung and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.