Donald Trump has said he hopes the US is not on a path to war with Iran amid fears that his two most hawkish advisers could be angling for conflict.
Asked if the US was going to war with Iran, the president replied “I hope not”, a day after he repeated a desire for dialogue, tweeting: “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”
The Fake News Washington Post, and even more Fake News New York Times, are writing stories that there is infighting with respect to my strong policy in the Middle East. There is no infighting whatsoever….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 15, 2019
The tone contrasted with a series of moves by the US and Iran that have sharply escalated tensions in the Middle East in recent days.
For the past year, national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo have been the public face of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
The friction has rattled legislators who are demanding more information on the White House’s claims of rising Iranian aggression.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has engaged in an escalating series of threatening actions and statements in recent weeks. Any attacks by them or their proxies against U.S. citizens or our interests will be answered with a swift and decisive response.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) May 10, 2019
Leaders in Congress received a classified briefing on Iran on Thursday, but many other legislators from both parties have criticised the White House for not keeping them informed.
Iran poses a particular challenge for Mr Trump. While he talks tough against foreign adversaries to the delight of his supporters, a military confrontation with Iran could make him appear to be backtracking on a campaign pledge to keep America out of foreign entanglements.
Legislators and allies worry that any erratic or miscalculated response from Mr Trump could send the US into conflict.
He pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and reinstated sanctions on Tehran that are crippling its economy.
Tensions rose dramatically on May 5 when Mr Bolton announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group would be rushed from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf ahead of schedule in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”.
Since then, four oil tankers, including two belonging to Saudi Arabia, have been targeted in an apparent act of sabotage off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to officials in the region, and a Saudi pipeline was attacked by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.
The US also ordered non-essential staff out of Iraq and has dispatched additional military assets to the region.
The Senate will receive a classified briefing on Iran on Tuesday, according to Jim Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The House has requested a classified briefing as well.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi said briefings are necessary because informing leaders “is no substitute for the full membership of the Congress”.
She said a failure to inform legislators is “part of a pattern” for the Trump administration “that is not right” because the power to declare war resides with Congress.
“I hope that the president’s advisers recognise that they have no authorisation to go forward in any way” against Iran, Ms Pelosi said.
Mr Trump has dismissed suggestions that any of his advisers, particularly Mr Bolton, are pushing him into a conflict.
“John has strong views on things, but that’s OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn’t it?” he said recently when asked if he was satisfied with Mr Bolton’s advice.
“I have different sides. I mean, I have John Bolton, and I have other people that are a little more dovish than him. And ultimately I make the decision.”