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Pompeo warns Iran about trigger for U.S. military action as some in administration question aggressive policy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said June 18 that President Trump wants to deter aggression with Iran, adding he "does not want war." (Video: Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has privately delivered warnings intended for Iranian leaders that any attack by Tehran or its proxies resulting in the death of even one American service member will generate a military counterattack, U.S. officials said.

The potential for a significant military response to even an isolated event has fueled a broader internal debate among top Trump officials about whether the administration’s policy exceeds President Trump’s specific goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the officials said.

One such message about retaliation was delivered during a hastily arranged visit to Baghdad by Pompeo in May after officials detected a spike in intelligence indicating that Iran’s militia proxies might resume assaults on U.S. forces operating in proximity to them across Iraq. While such attacks were common during the Iraq War, Pompeo told Iraqi leaders in a message he knew would be relayed to Tehran that a single American fatality would prompt the United States to hit back. That specific warning has not been previously reported.

“What happens if Americans are killed? That changes the whole thing,” said a senior administration official involved in Iran policy who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. “It changes everything.”

Trump rails against Iran. But who’s listening?

Speaking during a visit to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa on Tuesday, Pompeo said Trump “does not want war” but stressed the United States would act if assaulted. “We are there to deter aggression,” he said. Trump himself has sent mixed messages about the seriousness of Iran’s actions and how he would respond to them.

The sudden departure Tuesday of Patrick Shanahan, who has served as acting defense secretary since January, could further sideline the Pentagon, which has campaigned to reduce the potential for hostilities. Shanahan’s withdrawal followed revelations of a complicated domestic dispute.

Concerns about an escalation are particularly pointed at the Pentagon, where the absence of a confirmed secretary has fueled worries that hawks in the White House and State Department could push the military beyond its specific mission of destroying the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, raising the potential for conflict with Iran.

Administration officials interviewed by The Washington Post said that national security adviser John Bolton has dominated Iran policy, keeping a tight rein on information that gets to the president and sharply reducing meetings in which top officials gather in the White House’s Situation Room to discuss the policy.

A spokesman for the Pentagon declined to comment, and a spokesman for the National Security Council did not provide a comment.

An attack last week on two oil tankers in waters off Iran, which the Trump administration has blamed on Tehran, and Iranian leaders’ threat to violate the 2015 international nuclear deal have added urgency to Pentagon worries that a miscalculation on the part of Iranian proxy forces could spark conflict.

On Monday, the Pentagon said it would send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East, another step to beef up the U.S. posture in the region.

The reinforcements come as the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign,” spearheaded by Bolton and Pompeo, undermines the Iranian economy. That campaign, initiated after Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord with Tehran, was recently expanded to include the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group and steps to starve Iran of oil revenue.

The intensification of that campaign has triggered internal debates over how best to execute the president’s orders. At the State Department this spring, an argument among officials over how hard to squeeze Iran with sanctions ended with those favoring the toughest possible approach prevailing. In particular, hard-liners at the White House squelched waivers that would have allowed Iran to keep selling oil after a May 1 deadline. White House aides also ended waivers that allowed Iran to swap its enriched uranium for natural uranium, an integral part of the nuclear deal.

While State Department officials sought to achieve a “sweet spot” that would weaken Iran through sanctions but not push so hard that Iran would withdraw from the nuclear deal, others have argued that Trump’s goal is to destroy the accord at any cost and pursue a more expansive policy that seeks to cripple Iran’s proxy forces throughout the region.

Pentagon and State Department officials have complained, however, about the difficulty of getting an adequate hearing for these debates under Bolton. As a result, arguments about policy frequently are not aired and do not reach the president. The process is “very exclusionary, and Bolton has very sharp elbows,” the senior administration official said.

U.S. allies in Europe have voiced concern about Iran’s activities but also urged both sides to avoid increasing tensions. A German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Berlin wants the situation to de-escalate and believes the U.S. pressure campaign sparked the Iranian response. The Americans “created this mess, and now they have to find a way to get out.”

While officials at the Pentagon have acted to support the administration’s pressure campaign, some have raised concerns that escalating action may inadvertently make the United States less, not more, safe in the Middle East and undermine the president’s goal of bringing troops home from the region.

At the Pentagon, officials have quietly voiced concerns for months that the current trajectory might make military conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The administration’s bellicose, go-for-broke tactics for dealing with Iran are fundamentally at odds with the president’s insistence on extricating the United States from costly and protracted military conflicts,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Applying maximalist pressure, even if it is primarily economic rather than military, will tend to inspire proportional responses.”

In recent months, military leaders have sought to tread a careful line: securing military resources they believe are needed to properly defend American troops in the region and deter Iranian provocations without increasing the odds of a war — which they have said would be long and bloody.

One person familiar with the recent discussions said that Pentagon officials, including Shanahan, have been “the ones putting the brakes” on the State Department and the White House. “DOD is not beating the drums of war,” the person said.

While the White House has already approved requests for thousands of additional forces for U.S. Central Command, its commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, may well make additional requests in coming weeks.

“Does the president want to send more troops? No. Will he be convinced to do it? Yes,” the senior administration official said.

Trump, in contrast to some of his advisers, has seemed to downplay the significance of Iran’s actions. In an interview published Tuesday by Time magazine, he said the recent oil tanker attacks were “very minor.”

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers pushed back on that idea.

“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 biggest fear is that Iran could trigger a larger conflict if one of its proxies in Iraq or Syria fired a volley of mortar rounds or rockets at an American base and killed U.S. personnel. Such attacks were common only a few years ago. On Tuesday, Sky News Arabia reported that rockets had been fired at an area of Mosul, in northern Iraq, where U.S. military trainers are stationed. It was unclear who fired them.

In 2011, as U.S. troops were preparing to leave Iraq, Iranian-backed proxies launched rocket attacks on American forces. The top commander in the region at the time, Gen. Jim Mattis, pressed the Obama administration for a retaliatory strike against Iran.

One option was a dead-of-night attack on an Iranian power plant or oil refinery, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. The Obama administration never authorized a strike.

Karoun Demirjian and Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.