WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s accusation on Thursday that Iran was behind an attack on two oil tankers forces President Trump to confront a choice he has avoided until now: whether to make good on his threat that Tehran would “suffer greatly” if American interests were imperiled.
For weeks, Mr. Trump has weaved on the issue, by turns ordering a carrier group last month to head to the Persian Gulf and then distancing himself from the hawkish views of his national security adviser, John R. Bolton. Last week, the president said he was open to negotiating with Iranian leaders the way he has negotiated with North Korea. And on Thursday, with images of black smoke rising from a tanker hit with a mine, Mr. Trump seemed to reverse course, posting on Twitter that “it is too soon to even think about making a deal,” adding, “They are not ready, and neither are we!”
His equivocation reflects divisions in his administration, which has never come to an agreement on a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran — especially after it shattered the unity of the United States’ key allies, who had joined with the Obama administration to force Tehran into the 2015 nuclear deal that Mr. Trump subsequently abandoned.
Now, operating largely without allies, he faces an Iran that is escalating nuclear production and retaliating for sanctions the White House has reimposed without a diplomatic path in sight to steer the two longtime adversaries away from confrontation.
“If the Iranians were responsible for the attacks on shipping in the gulf, it is reckless and dangerous,” said William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state who opened the negotiations with Iran during the Obama administration.
“Sadly, that is also at least partly a predictable consequence of an American coercive diplomacy strategy that so far is all coercion and no diplomacy,” Mr. Burns said. “The risk is that hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington become mutual enablers, going up a very unsteady escalatory ladder.”
Mr. Trump seems to sense this, just as he sensed the same forces at work two summers ago, when he was threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against the government of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. By early the next year, he had reversed course, starting negotiations and claiming that he now had plenty of time to solve a nuclear crisis he had once called urgent.
But North Korea and Iran are radically different political entities, with vastly different abilities. North Korea already has nuclear weapons, giving it leverage Iran can only imagine. And while Mr. Kim is an absolute ruler, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is hardly a free actor: He would lose face, and perhaps his job, if he negotiated without first forcing the United States to rejoin the 2015 agreement that Mr. Trump has rejected as fatally flawed.
So the Iranian government has begun to respond to the tougher economic sanctions that Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo have championed by conducting its own form of escalation — beginning to edge out of the limits imposed on it by the nuclear accord. So, presumably, has the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is believed to be a player in the acts of sabotage in the gulf.
While the administration tries to find the line between deterrence and provocation, the Iranians appear to be struggling with the same problem. Mr. Rouhani did not announced a total nuclear breakout last month, but step-by-step moves to enlarge the country’s stockpile of reactor grade — not bomb grade — nuclear fuel. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not directly confronted American or Saudi or United Arab Emirates forces in the gulf.
“Iran’s supreme leader has to carefully calibrate his response to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If he responds insufficiently, he risks losing face. If he responds excessively, he risks losing his head.”
Two months ago, Mr. Pompeo declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization, and announced sanctions on the businesses that have been among its major sources of revenue. When intelligence agencies picked up threats in early May, the aircraft carrier Lincoln was directed to steam toward the oil lanes that Iran could threaten.
That is when a debate broke out in the Defense Department. American commanders in region, led by the new head of the United States Central Command, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, called for an increase of nearly 20,000 troops in the region, officials said. Some top military brass, including Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged caution, fearing that Iran would see that increase as provocative — and perhaps a sign that, despite denials, the Trump administration’s real goal was regime change.
In the end, the president ordered about 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to increase the protection of American forces already based there.
Those tensions were echoed Thursday morning in the secure meeting room at the Pentagon, called the Tank, where Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, General Dunford and other senior administration national security officials gathered in a previously scheduled meeting to discuss threats in the Middle East as well as American troop levels in the region.
Mr. Shanahan, treading carefully because his formal nomination to be defense secretary has not yet been sent to the Senate, had pared back General McKenzie’s request because he feared Mr. Trump might reject it. But since then, Central Command has modified its request for more air and naval forces to protect American forces in the region and to deter an Iranian attack, two American officials said.
Preparing for Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Shanahan and General Dunford were ready to make the case that Mr. Trump had told the Pentagon to reduce American forces and United States involvement in the current wars in the Middle East, and avoid direct confrontation with Iran, one senior administration official said.
The policy choices advocated by Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton policy are having the opposite effect, the official said.
It was unclear how the rapidly unfolding news from the gulf on Thursday altered the tenor of the meeting, but one senior military official said afterward that attacks on the tankers represented a clear escalation in the simmering crisis.
Mr. Pompeo offered no evidence publicly that Iran was responsible — even though officials said that the United States has video of an Iranian patrol boat brazenly removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the tankers — but that did not stop him from stating an unambiguous conclusion.
“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security,” he said, saying they were part of a 40-year pattern of terrorist activity by Iran.
The Iranians responded Thursday night with a statement, issued from their mission to the United Nations, saying that “the U.S. and its regional allies must stop warmongering and put an end to mischievous plots as well as false flag operations in the region,” and that it, too, was concerned over “suspicious incidents for the oil tankers that occurred today.” They were, in effect, charging that the United States had staged the episode — making declassification of the evidence all the more important.
It may also be important in Congress, where several members insisted Thursday that Mr. Trump would need to get congressional authorization if he ever intended to strike back at Iran.
“Going to war with Iran is not necessary,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and a presidential candidate, who served with the Marines in Iraq. “John Bolton and others in the Trump administration are trying to drag us into Iran just as they dragged us into Iraq, using the same tactics to convince a weak commander in chief — who doesn’t have the credibility to say no to war because he dodged serving in war himself — to lure us into conflict again.”