Secretary Mike Pompeo has privately-delivered warnings intended for Iranian leaders that any attack by Tehran or its proxies, resulting in the death of one US servant, will create a military contrast, US officials said.
The potential for a significant military response to even an isolated event has sparked a wider internal debate among the top Trump officials about whether administration policies exceed President Trump's specific goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, officials said.
Such a retaliation notice was given during a fast-paced visit to Baghdad by Pompeo in May, after officials discovered a point in intelligence, suggesting that Iran's military proxies could resume attacks on US forces operating in near them in Iraq. While such attacks were common during the Iraq war, Pompeo told Iraqi leaders in a message he knew would be diverted to Tehran that a single US death would ask the US to strike back. The specific warning has not been reported previously.
"What happens if the Americans are killed? It changes it all," said a senior administrative officer involved in Iran's policy, which, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. "It changes everything."
Speaking during a visit to the US Central Command Office in Tampa on Tuesday, Pompeo said that Trump "will not have war" but stressed that the United States would act if assaulted. "We're there to deter aggression," he said. Trump himself sent mixed messages about Iran's actions and how he would react to them.
The sudden departure Tuesday by Patrick Shanahan, who served as acting defense secretary since January, could further sideline the Pentagon, which has been struggling to reduce the risk of hostilities. Shanahan's withdrawal followed revelations of a complicated dispute.
Concerns about an escalation are particularly pointed out to the Pentagon, where the absence of a confirmed secretary has given rise to concerns in the White House, and the state department could push the military beyond its specific mission to destroy the rest of it. Islamic state in Iraq and Syria and increase the potential for conflict with Iran.
Administration officials interviewed by The Washington Post said national security advisor John Bolton has dominated Iran's policy and kept close to information It comes to the president and sharply meets where senior officials gather in the White House Situation Room to discuss the policy.
A Pentagon spokesman refused to comment and a National Security Council spokesman did not comment.
Last week's attack on two Iranian oil tankers, which the Trump administration blamed on Tehran, and the Iranian leaders' threat to violate the international international nuclear agreement in 2015 added that the Pentagon is concerned that one miscalculation from the Iranian proxy forces could spark conflict.
On Monday, the Pentagon said it would send another 1,000 troops to the Middle East, another step to boosting the US position in the region.
The reinforcements come as the administration's "maximum press campaign", spearheaded by Bolton and Pompeo, undermining the Iranian economy. The campaign launched after Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Tehran was recently expanded to include the appointment of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Corps as a terrorist group and steps to starve Iran on oil revenues.
For the intensification of this campaign has triggered internal debates on how best to execute the president's orders. In the state department in the spring, an argument among officials ended how hard to press Iran with sanctions ended with those who favored the toughest possible approach. In particular, hair removal in the White House scared abdication that would have allowed Iran to continue selling oil after a deadline on May 1. White housekeepers also concluded exceptions that allowed Iran to switch its enriched uranium to natural uranium, an integral part of the nuclear agreement.
While State Secretaries attempted to achieve a "sweet spot" that would weaken Iran through sanctions but not push so hard that Iran would withdraw from the nuclear power agreement, others have argued that Trump's goal is to destroy the deal to anyone praise and pursue a more expansive policy that seeks to crush Iran's proxy forces throughout the region.
However, the Pentagon and officials have complained about the difficulty of getting an appropriate hearing for these debates during Bolton. As a result, arguments about politics are often not issued and do not come to the president. The process is "very exclusionary, and Bolton has very sharp elbows," the senior administration official said.
U.S. Allies in Europe have expressed concern about Iran's activities, but also urged both parties to avoid increasing tensions. A German official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that Berlin wants the situation to de-escalate and believes that the US press campaign triggered the Iranian response. The Americans "created this mess, and now they have to find a way to get out."
While Pentagon officials have acted to support the administration's press campaign, some have raised concerns that escalating actions may inadvertently make the United States smaller, no 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 expressed concerns for months that the current course can make military conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"The administration's bellicose tactics for dealing with Iran are fundamentally contrary to the President's insistence on eradicating the United States from expensive and prolonged military conflicts," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian researcher at the Brookings Institution. "Applying maximal pressure, though primarily economic rather than military, will tend to inspire proportional responses."
In recent months, military leaders have attempted a cautious line: securing military resources they believe necessary for proper defense US troops in the region and discouraging Iranian provocations without increasing the odds of war – as they have said would be long and bloody.
A person familiar with the recent discussions said that Pentagon officials, including Shanahan, have been "putting the brakes on" at the state department and white house. "DOD is not beating the drums of war," said the person.
Although the White House has already approved thousands of additional forces for US Central Command, its commander may be bothering. Kenneth McKenzie, well make further requests in the coming weeks.
"Will the president send more troops? No. Will he be convinced to do so? Yes," said the senior administration.
Trump, unlike some of his advisers, apparently has downgraded the importance of Iran's actions. In an interview published Tuesday by Time Magazine, he said the latest oil tanker attacks were "much smaller."
At Capitol Hill, some lawmakers shot that idea.
"He certainly hasn't suggested it to me Sunday," said beds Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.), referring to a father's golf game he played with the president. "He was very upset about where Iran went. You can't have provocative actions by rogue regimes go unanswered."
The biggest fear is that Iran can trigger a major conflict if one of its proxies in Iraq or Syria fired a volley of mortar rounds or rockets at an American base and killed American staff. Such attacks were common only a few years ago. On Tuesday, Sky News Arabia reported that rockets had been fired on an area in Mosul in northern Iraq, where US military trainers were stationed. It was unclear who fired them.
In 2011, as US troops prepared to leave Iraq, Iranian backed proxies launched rocket attacks on US forces. The top commander in the region at that time pressed genl. Jim Mattis The Obama administration to a rebound strike against Iran.
One possibility was a death attack on an Iranian power plant or oil refinery, according to officials aware of the considerations. The Obama administration never approved a strike.
Karoun Demirjian and Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.