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Trump Softens Escalating Iran War Rhetoric


President Trump told his acting defense secretary this week he does not want to go to war against Iran. Comments which came on Wednesday in the White House Situation Room appeared designed to put the brakes on rising tensions with Tehran. Trump spoke up after a warning from the Pentagon that another military conflict in the Middle East would carry a heavy price. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For much of his first year in office, President Trump's most hostile impulses towards Iran were reined in by advisers who urged the president not to withdraw from the nuclear agreement forged by the previous administration. Ultimately, Trump rejected that advice, though. And Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security says the president is now surrounded by new advisers who are even more bellicose than he is.

RICHARD FONTAINE: John Bolton, the national security adviser, is a longtime hawk on Iran and I think is disinclined to be a model of restraint when it comes to the muscular expression of American power.

HORSLEY: Indeed, Bolton has advocated regime change in many parts of the world, including North Korea and Venezuela. Trump campaigned on a more isolationist platform, wary of costly foreign entanglements. Bolton told Fox News last year when he took over as national security adviser, he's not calling the shots.


JOHN BOLTON: My job is to give advice to the president. He'll make the decision. It's his call. I'm the national security adviser, not the national security decision-maker.

HORSLEY: But Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it can be hard to know who's making decisions when it comes to Iran.

JON ALTERMAN: The person who seems to be the point person on Iran is located in the State Department. The chief antagonist seems to be in the White House. The Defense Department seems to be harboring an instinct to hold back, certainly on use of military means, but there's an acting secretary of defense who's careful of getting crosswise with the president.

HORSLEY: The administration has been ramping up pressure on Iran. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran appeared to be preparing to launch a military strike. But Iran may have been merely preparing for an anticipated attack by American forces. Derek Chollet, a former assistant defense secretary, says in this environment, the biggest threat may be an accidental conflict.

DEREK CHOLLET: I don't believe that, despite the president's rhetoric, he's interested in the U.S. getting in a big fight in the Middle East with Iran. But he could very easily, by a series of blunders, get us into a fight that he'd come to regret.

HORSLEY: Any war with Iran would be costly. The country has more than three times the population and four times the landmass of neighboring Iraq. The president appeared to balk this week after reports the Pentagon had floated a plan to send 120,000 American troops to the area to deal with any Iranian aggression.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have not planned for that. Hopefully we're not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops then that.

HORSLEY: Chollet calls that walk-back a characteristic reaction.

CHOLLET: This president's pattern - not just in foreign policy, but in business and in life - seems to be you dial up the rhetoric. You push as hard as you possibly can, and the other side tends to back down. And if the other side doesn't back down, then you kind of talk your way out of it by declaring victory.

HORSLEY: Whatever victories the president might've declared, however, Fontaine says so far, Trump's tough talk on foreign policy has not paid off.

FONTAINE: The common theme across all of these things with Iran and North Korea and Venezuela is a lot of these problems that we face are quite sticky, and there's no easy solutions to them. So they all may be here quite a deal longer than the president would have hoped.

HORSLEY: For the moment, at least, Trump seems to prefer a sticky stalemate to an all-out military conflict. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.


Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.