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Trump Officials Are Divided Over How Aggressive To Be With Iran

17 hours ago

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So how much of a threat does Iran pose? A debate has been playing out all week inside the Trump administration and with its European allies about whether that threat has grown greater now. National security adviser John Bolton announced the United States was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and land-based bombers to the Persian Gulf because of unspecified Iranian activity threatening U.S. interests.

But President Trump, let's remember, campaigned on pulling the U.S. back from further entanglements abroad. He appears not to want a military conflict with Iran. Listen to the president last week.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What I'd like to see with Iran - I'd like to see them call me.

GREENE: The president went on to say...

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TRUMP: What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down. We can make a deal - a fair deal. We just don't want to have nuclear weapons - not too much to ask.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman to talk about all of this.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: All right. So that announcement from Bolton - sending bombers to the region - seemed like a significant move. I mean, what evidence did the administration have that Iran was doing something threatening?

BOWMAN: Well, there are a number of things, David. First of all, the administration hasn't said so publicly, but officials confirm that one piece of evidence are stacks of missiles they see on some Iranian boats. They have pictures of those. And also, I'm told there are indications that Iranian leaders have asked their Revolutionary Guard to reach out to their proxies in the region to go after either U.S. forces or U.S. allies.

Now, Congressman Adam Smith, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, told NPR's Here & Now that he really hasn't seen anything new here. And he warned against chasing ghosts and also warned about what he called a horrific war that could erupt with Iran. Now, they expect to get more briefings next week. And we'll see what members of Congress say. And this courts something else as well that - recently, you saw some apparent sabotage of oil tankers in the Gulf and also Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacking the Saudi pipeline, so there's a lot bubbling out there.

And they're still trying to assess the intelligence to see, you know, whether the Iranian fingerprints are on those recent attacks. But, yeah, it's - you know, it's a kind of thing where people really do question the intelligence at least on the Hill.

GREENE: But the intelligence was enough that the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was making these unscheduled stops in Brussels and Baghdad to share the concerns about Iran. I mean, how did other countries receive what the U.S. is thinking here?

BOWMAN: Well, initially, the British were kind of skeptical of it. They agree that there's - doesn't seem to be anything new here. We heard from a British general at the Pentagon who said he sees no indication that Iranian militias in Iraq are doing anything differently. He says we keep an eye on them. And, again, members of Congress, as I said, who were briefed, are - they're skeptical about all this.

And what we're told, also, is that the Pentagon is really pushing back on any talk of war or any kind of moves toward war, particularly Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford. He's trying to explain to people at the White House, you know, what it would mean if you start heading down the road to war.

And it seems like, at this point, they've kind of tamped down any talk of war. And as the president said, I really don't want to go to war here. So it seems like things have somewhat calmed down a bit. But we'll find out more next week when they have briefings on the Hill.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, the president said he doesn't want more military engagement. Do we know what he's doing behind the scenes?

BOWMAN: You know, we really don't know what the president is doing behind the scenes. But there's absolutely no question that there is a great deal of tension between the White House and the Pentagon. That's absolutely clear. At least at this point, the president seems to have sided with those urging caution, mostly at the Pentagon.

GREENE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.