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Trump’s dual instincts on Iran: Big threats and an eagerness to deal

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump publicly discussed Iran three times on Sept. 16, saying "it's looking" the country was behind an attack on Saudi oil fields. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

President Trump has said Iran is the greatest threat in the Middle East, a would-be nuclear power that he has brought low through the stiffest sanctions ever applied to a single nation. He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded” to punish Iran if it is found to be responsible for the attack on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.

But Trump has also eagerly courted a sit-down negotiation with the leader of Iran, called off a military strike earlier this year because it could have killed too many Iranians and flirted with a plan to offer Tehran a $15 billion lifeline to help it deal with the crushing U.S. sanctions.

On Monday in the Oval Office, Trump told reporters “we don’t want war with anybody” and then less than an hour later said he thinks a U.S. military strike on an Iranian oil facility would be a proportional response.

The head-spinning contradictions hold a certain logic in Trump’s view, but also throw the imprecision and disarray of Trumpian foreign policy decision-making into high relief. Trump is caught between a political imperative to confront Iran — pleasing hawkish Republican supporters and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia — and his own political instincts against foreign intervention and toward cutting a deal.

But uncertainty over where Trump stands has complicated every other foreign policy challenge the United States faces in the Middle East, unnerved Israel and helped push out the administration’s leading Iran hawk, former national security adviser John Bolton.

“It’s not the way you do diplomacy” and heightens the risk of “miscalculation” on both the Iranian and U.S. sides, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Monday during an interview with MSNBC. Cardin is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As U.S.-Iran tensions continue, President Trump and his Cabinet members deliver mixed messaging over whether they're willing to negotiate with Iranian leaders. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Trump’s dual approach on Iran is premised on the idea that by walking out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran and replacing the pact’s concessions with new sanctions, Trump can both please the hawks and force Iran to the bargaining table for a deal that would carry the Trump brand.

Trump would be the first U.S. president to meet an Iranian president since the 1970s, an idea that appeals to him, said advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views. He has made an offer that has no precedent since the Islamic republic was born out of a bitterly anti-American revolution in 1979, saying repeatedly that he would sit down with “no conditions.”

Political allies have also advised Trump that a military attack could escalate and hurt him with key supporters who like his “America First” pledge to limit U.S. obligations overseas, one senior administration official and one outside adviser said Monday.

Although Trump campaigned in 2016 on closing down what he called endless wars, he has not brought troops home from Afghanistan or Iraq and would not want to head into reelection next year saddled with a new conflict in the Middle East, these advisers said. To do so would hand Democrats a compelling argument that Trump bumbled his way into a war, according to one of the advisers.

Trump’s split-screen impulses on Iran have one constant, current and former officials said. He wants to best the legacy of former president Barack Obama.

Under that umbrella, the locked-and-loaded comment on Sunday comes from a desire to confront a tough adversary with greater toughness, something he says Obama failed to do. And the invitation to Iran to negotiate comes from Trump’s thinking that he can drive a harder bargain than his predecessor.

Trump particularly wants to show up traditional foreign policy hands and U.S. allies who point to the 2015 nuclear deal as a signature Obama achievement, people who have discussed Iran policy with him said.

Trump himself pointed out how his deal would be different from Obama’s last week when he said Iran wants a deal.

“We cannot let Iran have a nuclear weapon, and they never will have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said Wednesday. “And if they’re thinking about enrichment, they can forget about it, because it’s going to be very, it’s going to be very dangerous for them to enrich.”

That was a reference to the 2015 deal’s allowance for low-level uranium enrichment. Opponents of the deal say any enrichment gives Iran an eventual path to a nuclear weapon, and Trump says he would close that loophole.

Trump shares a disdain for that agreement with Bolton, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as foreign policy hawks he consults such as Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). He does not, however, share their broad skepticism about negotiating with Iran.

Bolton’s departure last week came after Trump had mused about the possibility of ending some of the U.S. sanctions on Tehran as an inducement to talks, an idea the Iran hawk could not stomach, a person close to Bolton said Saturday.

Trump said Monday he has no meeting scheduled with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when both leaders will be in New York next week for the annual U.N. General Assembly, but he repeated a claim that “they want to meet” eventually.

Iran has publicly ruled out a meeting until sanctions are lifted, and the already improbable New York sit-down now appears even more remote.

On Wednesday, three days before the oil attack in Saudi Arabia, Trump had sounded more confident.

“I do believe they’d like to make a deal” because of the “tremendous financial difficulty” brought on by U.S. sanctions, he said. “If they do, that’s great. And if they don’t, that’s great, too.”

On Monday, Trump said the news media had misrepresented his “no conditions” offer. The U.S. sanctions themselves are “a condition” and will not be lifted, Trump asserted.

Bolton’s departure removes the loudest voice in favor of the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy with Iran but will not end the internal disconnect over talks.

Other advisers, including Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have avoided offering broad endorsements of new talks but do not contradict their boss.

“I would say Secretary Pompeo and myself and the president are completely aligned on our maximum pressure campaign. I think you know we’ve done more sanctions on Iran than anybody, and it’s absolutely working,” Mnuchin said Sept. 10, hours after Trump said he had fired Bolton. “Now, the president has made clear he is happy to take a meeting with no preconditions, but we are maintaining the maximum pressure campaign.”

Pompeo was then asked whether he could foresee a meeting between Trump and Rouhani at the U.N. gathering, and whether Pompeo supports that path.

“The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions,” Pompeo said.