By Michael Kranish
The Washington Post
President Trump on Monday denied that the United States is seeking regime change in Iran, dialing back hawkish rhetoric days after ordering 1,500 additional U.S. troops to the region.
Actions by the Trump administration had heightened questions about whether the president was seeking a military confrontation with Iran, starting with his decision to back out of a nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration and continuing with his recent orders for a military buildup, also including the deployment of a carrier strike group and B-52 bombers.
“We’re not looking for regime change. I want to make that clear,” Trump said at a joint news conference Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
A number of Democrats have expressed alarm about whether Trump’s actions would lead to war, and they also had questioned the administration’s interpretation of intelligence to argue that Iran was preparing for offensive action and therefore had to be countered.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Texas), a Democratic presidential candidate, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Trump was “provoking yet another war in the Middle East.”
Trump’s meeting with Abe on Monday focused partly on the possibility that relations between the United States and Iran could improve. Trump told reporters that Abe has a “very good relationship with Iran.”
That could set the stage for U.S. talks with Iran, Trump suggested, saying that “I do believe Iran would like to talk, and if they’d like to talk, we’ll talk also. . . . Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.”
Trump’s relatively conciliatory words marked a contrast with some of his recent statements and those of some top aides.
Under a 2015 deal backed by President Barack Obama, Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program in exchange for the dropping of sanctions. Trump had vowed during the 2016 campaign to pull out of the deal, arguing that it did not do enough to ensure that Iran would never be in a position to develop a nuclear weapon.
But he initially followed the advice of advisers who urged him not to scuttle the deal, which was struck between Iran and six global powers: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, as well as the United States.
That position changed when Trump brought into his administration more hawkish aides, including national security adviser John Bolton. He had called for regime change before joining the administration in March 2018, saying in July 2017 that “the declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.”
In May 2018, Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord, calling it “an embarrassment,” and announced that economic sanctions on Tehran would be reinstated.
Earlier this month, Iran said it will withdraw from part of the deal in July unless sanctions are eased. Tensions between the United States and Iran escalated further, as the Trump administration and some allies in the Persian Gulf region accused Iran or its proxies of attacking oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
On May 19, Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who represented his country in the nuclear talks with the United States, said on CNN on May 21, “Extreme prudence is required, and the United States is playing a very, very dangerous game.” The decision to reimpose U.S. sanctions, he said, “amounts to terrorism” against his country.
Last Friday, Trump said he was sending “a small number of troops” — about 1,500 — as well as a squadron of fighter jets and other equipment in what he called a “mostly protective” measure. He also authorized the multibillion-dollar sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, a traditional foe of Iran, invoking an emergency authorization to sidestep a congressional review of the sale.
Despite those actions, Trump said Friday, “I don’t think Iran wants to fight, and I certainly don’t think they want to fight with us.”
Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said via email Monday: “What Trump articulated in Japan was another reminder that his main problem with the Iran nuclear deal was that it was signed by Obama. Given Trump’s eagerness for a public summit and deal with Tehran, it’s conceivable Iran’s leaders could sign a more favorable deal with Trump than they did with Obama. But the pride and mistrust of Iran’s supreme leader makes him more inclined to subject his population to another year of sanctions and economic malaise rather than do a deal with Trump.”
Trump has often delivered conflicting messages on foreign policy, veering from sharp criticism to diplomacy, frequently leaving allies and adversaries alike unsure about where he stands.
In his statements Monday, Trump gave criticism along with praise. He said that Iran was “behind every single major attack” in the Middle East, but that the nation is “pulling back” because of economic problems caused by U.S. sanctions. At the same time, Trump said the Iranians are “great people” and that the Islamic Republic “has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership.”