President Donald Trump campaigned on promises to extract the United States from wars in the Middle East. But his national security adviser, Republicans in Congress and trusted allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia are pushing for a confrontation with Iran.
The rationale for taking an aggressive stance with Tehran may differ, but leaders in Tel Aviv, Riyadh and hawks in Washington share a common view that diplomacy with Iran is mostly futile and that the regime will only respond to massive economic pressure and, if necessary, military force.
“The behavior and objectives of the regime are not going to change,” John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, said at a convention organized by an Iranian opposition group in 2017. “Therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
It’s unclear whether Trump will heed Bolton’s advice, as well as the counsel of leaders in Israel and Saudi Arabia, and push Iran to the brink, or pull back and pursue the “art of the deal.” Trump engaged in a provocative war of words with North Korea in his first months in office before opting to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un twice in a bid to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
No deal with North Korea has emerged so far — and no deal is on the horizon — but tensions are drastically reduced compared to 2017.
During Trump’s first year in office, his cabinet included more cautious voices on Iran, with then Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and ex-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster appealing to Trump to postpone withdrawing from the multinational 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA.