Written by Mark Landler, Maggie Haberman and Eric Schmitt
President Donald Trump has sought to put the brakes on a brewing confrontation with Iran in recent days, telling the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, administration officials said, while his senior diplomats began searching for ways to defuse the tensions.
Trump’s statement, during a Wednesday morning meeting, sent a message to his hawkish aides that he does not want the intensifying US pressure campaign against the Iranians to explode into open conflict.
For now, an administration that had appeared to be girding for conflict seems more determined to find a diplomatic off-ramp.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the leader of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, on Wednesday to confer about the threat posed by Iran, according to a statement. Oman was a site of a secret channel in 2013 when the Obama administration was negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Pompeo also asked European officials for help in persuading Iran to “de-escalate” tensions, which rose after U.S. intelligence indicated Iran had placed missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf. The intelligence prompted fears that Tehran may strike at U.S. troops and assets or those of its allies.
Asked Thursday whether the United States was going to war with Iran, Trump replied, “I hope not.”
The developments cast into sharp relief a president who is instinctively wary of military adventures, and a cadre of advisers led by the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, who have taken an uncompromising line toward Iran.
Those divisions are playing out against an internal debate among administration officials about the gravity of the Iranian threat.
The administration’s internal debate over Iran was described by five senior officials who demanded anonymity.
Iran dismissed any suggestion of a dialogue with Trump. “The escalation by the United States is unacceptable,” the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Thursday.
No new information was presented to Trump at the Situation Room meeting that argued for further engagement with Iran, according to a person who attended.
Shanahan and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the president with a range of military options and ticked off the troop levels, costs and risks of each, one of the officials said.
But Trump was firm in saying he did not want a military clash with the Iranians, several officials said.