Donald Trump struggles to present unified message; Iran tensions flare - News Coverage

Donald Trump struggles to present unified message; Iran tensions flare

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is struggling to present a unified message on Iran with one high-profile military official undercutting the basis for his administration’s confrontational strategy and outside experts increasingly questioning the U.S. endgame.

As bombers recently deployed to the Middle East flew their first message-sending sorties, the president appeared to be caught between hard line advisers calling for more aggressive action against Tehran and others attempting to avoid an escalation.

In a remarkable break with the Trump administration, a British general who is the No. 2 officer in the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq said Tuesday that the threat from Iran is no greater than it was months ago, drawing a quick rebuke from the Pentagon.

Trump, meanwhile, dismissed a report he is planning to send additional troops to the Middle East but also insisted he would do so “absolutely” if needed.

“I really don’t see any benefit from the contradictory messaging,” said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director at the CIA who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “It leaves the Iranians confused, our allies discouraged, and the American public puzzled and concerned.”

Clearing out: U.S. Embassy orders staff to leave Iraq amid Iran tensions

New threats: Iran says Trump playing ‘very dangerous game,’ risking ‘devastating war’

All of the saber rattling left some experts questioning whether the White House is attempting to repeat the aggressive stance it took toward North Korea before then softening the rhetoric in exchange for temporary concessions Trump used to claim success. Experts have questioned the strategy after Kim Jong Un restarted missile tests shortly after Trump praised the North Korea leader for suspending them. 

Trump v. Iran 

Tension with Iran began to rise this month when John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, announced that the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and warships that travel with her were steaming to the region ahead of schedule.

A group of bombers was also dispatched as Bolton cited increasing alarm over threats to the thousands of U.S. troops in the region.

The next day, Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers noted “indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests.”

Ominously, the Pentagon announced the bombers were B-52s. Though the Stratofortress aircraft first flew in the Cold War, the huge warplanes have been updated and can loiter aloft with an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry that can be launched from a safe distance at targets inside Iran.

Troops report: Trump dismisses report of plan to send troops to Middle East 

Two days after Bolton’s announcement, Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said the military had detected “credible threat streams emanating from the regime in Iran throughout the CENTCOM area of responsibility.”

By the end of the week, the Pentagon announced it was bolstering the force, sending a Marine transport ship, the USS Arlington, and Patriot air-defense missiles to the region. Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, had made the request for additional forces, the Pentagon revealed.

Meantime, senior military officials, including Patrick Shanahan, the acting Defense Secretary, met quietly on Thursday to develop plans to send as many as 120,000 U.S. troops to the region, according to the New York Times.

What’s the latest?

Trump offered somewhat contradictory statements Tuesday. Asked about the New York Times report that the administration was considering sending 120,000 troops , the president said no such plans are in the works.

But then, in the next breath, he ratcheted up his anti-Iran rhetoric. 

“Would I do that? Absolutely,” Trump said of troops. If the administration decided to deploy soldiers to the region, he said, “we’d send a hell of lot more troops than that.”

Hours later, British Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, the No. 2 officer in Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters the threat from Iran was, in fact, not higher than it was months ago. 

His comments were at odds with U.S. officials, and Capt. Urban, the spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement that Ghrika is wrong.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cautioned against reading too much into the apparent disagreement between coalition officials.  

A “threat includes intent to pull the trigger, not just capability – not just more preparatory activity,” he said. “So until the trigger is, in fact, pulled, one can have a full and rich debate.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was traveling in Russia on Tuesday, appeared to tamp down escalating tensions. 

“We fundamentally do not see a war with Iran,” Pompeo said when asked about the New York Times report during a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He said the U.S. wants Iran to stop funding terrorist groups and “behave like a normal country.”

What does Iran say?

A senior Iranian official warned Tuesday that the U.S. is playing a “very dangerous game” and suggested Trump could “drag Iran into an unnecessary war.”

Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, said Trump made a “serious miscalculation” in deploying an aircraft carrier strike group, B-52 bombers and other military personnel and equipment to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged, unspecified Iranian threats. 

Baeidinejad denied that Iran or its “proxies” were behind what Washington described as the “sabotage” of oil tankers in the Gulf belonging to Saudi Arabia, Norway and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia said drones attacked one of its oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure, an incident that caused global oil price benchmarks to jump.  

“We are prepared for any eventuality,” Baeidinejad said. “This I can tell you.” 

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard

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