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Trump threatens Iran after embassy attack, but remains reluctant to get more involved in region

President Trump answers questions from reporters after making a video call to troops stationed worldwide at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 24. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump on Tuesday was pulled toward the kind of Middle East tinderbox he has tried to avoid, as he blamed Iran for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that further damaged U.S. relations with Baghdad and appeared to put Trump’s hopes for diplomacy with Tehran further out of reach.

Hundreds of supporters of an Iranian-backed militia chanted “Death to America” as they breached part of the outer security layer at the vast compound in Baghdad’s protected Green Zone.

U.S. diplomats were barricaded and unharmed inside the $750 million embassy, built as a powerful symbol of U.S. permanence after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that Trump has derided as the worst U.S. foreign policy blunder. But the hulking structure may now serve as a symbol of how difficult it can be to disentangle U.S. interests from Iraq and the region despite the president’s stated desire to get out of “endless wars” and reduce the United States’ footprint in the Middle East.

On Jan. 1, the siege on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad appeared to come to an end after supporters of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia retreated. (Video: Mustafa Salim/The Washington Post)

Trump now faces a potentially combustible situation where the United States and Iran are elbowing for influence in Iraq as U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with some of Trump’s in-house advisers, urge a more forceful confrontation with Tehran over its aggressive tactics across the Middle East.

The president struck a bellicose tone Tuesday, but it’s unclear what moves he will make next as he feels the tug between taking a tough line with Iran and trying to avoid getting more involved in the region.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump tweeted late Tuesday afternoon from Florida, where he is spending the holidays at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “Happy new year!”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the president held what he called a good meeting with advisers and approved sending a small contingent of Marines and two Apache helicopters to reinforce security at the embassy while tweeting that “The U.S. Embassy in Iraq is, & has been for hours, SAFE!”

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper also announced Tuesday night that the administration was sending 750 troops to the region as “an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally and foreign policy adviser, had breakfast with the president Tuesday and said in an interview that Trump was determined to “have no Benghazi on his watch,” a reference to the 2012 attack on U.S. government facilities in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Republicans harshly criticized the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the response to the Benghazi attack, and Trump’s wariness over any comparisons between the two events was on display Tuesday.

“The Anti-Bengahzi!” he tweeted about his administration’s response to the situation in Baghdad.

Graham said Trump is not looking for a fight and hopes Iran will take steps that allow tensions to be ratcheted down soon.

“The goal is to de-escalate, but it takes two to do that,” he said, adding that Trump and his national security team are discussing “a lot of options” he would not detail.

Trying to shake off conflict

In general, the United States has options to confront Iran indirectly through military action against its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and to increase economic and political pressure on Tehran.

The United States could also retaliate against Iraq, an ally of both Washington and Tehran, for failing to do more to protect the embassy and the American contractor whose death Friday at the hands of an Iranian-backed militia set off the current crisis. The United States responded to the contractor’s death by carrying out airstrikes Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases near the Iraqi-Syrian border.

“The president is determined not to let Americans be attacked without them paying a price,” Graham said of Iran.

The developments in Baghdad came on the eve of the new year, when Trump is seeking reelection on a platform that boasts of strong international leadership and a commitment that the United States will not be a global policeman for age-old conflicts.

“They’re fighting for 1,000 years, they’re fighting for centuries. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said in October, as he announced that U.S. forces had killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “I had absolutely nothing to do with going into Iraq, and I was totally against it.”

Trump has long viewed U.S. involvement in the Middle East as a political loser that leads only to the loss of money and lives, according to a Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views.

“I can tell you 100 percent that the president has no desire to get into some kind of new conflict in the Middle East during 2020,” the person said.

Speaking to reporters at Mar-a-Lago shortly before New Year’s Eve festivities there, Trump backed off his aggressive tone against Iran that he had leveled on Twitter earlier Tuesday.

“Do I want to? No,” he said when asked whether he would go to war against Iran. “I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”

He said the situation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had been “handled very well” and insisted — as he did in tweets earlier in the day — that “this will not be a Benghazi” and that “this will never, ever be a Benghazi.”

“There was no problem whatsoever,” he said.

This fall Trump withdrew all but a few U.S. forces from Syria to make good on his promise to shake off the sand of faraway Middle East conflicts, but the move was condemned by both Republicans and Democrats because it allowed Turkey to move against the Kurds, who had been allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. Trump sought to portray his decision as a win after a cease-fire was declared, but his detractors countered that occurred only because Turkey had already achieved what it wanted in the region at the expense of the Kurds.

Trump has distanced himself from the current Iraqi leadership and criticized its stewardship of oil resources. The White House issued only a cursory summary of a phone call Tuesday between Trump and the country’s placeholder prime minister.

“The two leaders discussed regional security issues and President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the statement said.

“Regional security issues” is often shorthand for the White House view that Iran stirs up trouble throughout the Middle East and endangers Israel. Some of Trump’s advisers view Iraq as a long-term U.S. partner and a foothold of U.S.-backed democracy in the Middle East, while others mainly see Iraq through the prism of its next-door neighbor Iran.

Diplomatic prospects fade

Trump has wanted to talk to Iran’s president in an effort to strike some kind of deal, a move opposed by many in his administration, that he contends would be far better than the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration reached with Tehran and that Trump abandoned soon after taking office. But there has been little progress on that front, and the attack on the embassy appeared to make those talks even less likely in the near future.

Tensions were also high between Washington and Baghdad before the embassy assault, as officials traded accusations over Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes, which Iraqi leaders called a violation of their country’s sovereignty.

“I think the first thing he should be thinking about is stabilizing the Iraqi government and not putting more pressure on it,” said Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “If the net result of all this is an unstable Iraqi political situation, we will be sucked into it one way or another.”

Ryan Crocker, also a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said Trump should think carefully about how his next steps will be viewed by Iran, which has its own calculations to make about how far to go in flexing its influence. Crocker welcomes Trump’s stated interest in negotiating with Iran eventually, but said the president is raising the likelihood of conflict or miscalculation now.

“Trump sends a lot of different signals” that Iran may not be able to interpret, he said. “I just hope that they took that into account before those F-16 strikes, that with that level of force, the chances of some kind of response are pretty high.”

Former Army general Barry McCaffrey, who has led troops in Iraq, said Trump is making it harder for Iran to back down.

“The economic sanctions on Iran are choking them, and they’re looking for a way out. Our own demands have been maximalist — and in public,” he said. “It’s a pressure cooker, and it’s going to blow.”

McCaffrey and Hill noted that Iran has more military resources in and around Iraq than the United States.

“Trump has dealt with this in the worst possible way. He’s publicly, not privately, confronting the Iranians not on a conflict of our choosing but of their choosing,” McCaffrey said.

Iraqi security forces appeared to do little to prevent the initial assault on the embassy perimeter but later intervened, erecting a steel barrier at the smashed gate into the compound’s reception area.

Some Iraqi protesters set up tents outside the compound Tuesday night, condemning the airstrikes and vowing to stay until all U.S. troops and diplomats leave Iraq.

The strikes against the Iranian-backed group Kataib Hezbollah killed 25 militia members and injured more than 50.

Douglas Ollivant, a former Army officer and National Security Council official who served in Iraq, questioned why Trump didn’t retaliate for the contractor’s death with a strike on Iranian assets in Syria rather than in Iraq. The United States has no stake in the Syrian government the way it does in the Iraqi one, and both have interwoven ties with Iran, Ollivant said.

The militia attack that killed the U.S. contractor “clearly gave the Iran hawks the justification they needed to strike Iranian-affiliated groups inside Iraq,” said Ollivant, now managing partner at the Iraq-focused consultancy Mantid International.

As for what Trump does now, Ollivant said the president may have less leeway than he imagines to reduce U.S. involvement in Iraq.

“We’re now on our second president in a row that seems unable to disentangle themselves from this just by clearly wanting to,” he said.

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.