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WASHINGTON – Two days after President Donald Trump tried to tamp down U.S. tensions with Iran, his national security adviser, John Bolton, dialed the administration's hawkish rhetoric back up.
Bolton's remarks came during a visit to the UAE, during which he said the oil tanker attacks were “almost certainly (conducted) by Iran." He did not offer specific evidence to support that claim. Bolton said there was “no reason” for Iran to back out of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers unless it planned to seek nuclear weapons.
"These kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States," said Bolton, a longtime foreign policy hard-liner.
Bolton's remarks stood in stark contrast to Trump's comments Monday during the president's visit to Japan.
"We’re not looking for regime change. I want to make that clear,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
Trump downplayed Bolton's assessment of another global hot spot: North Korea. Bolton had said North Korea's recent missile tests violated United Nations resolutions.
"There is no doubt about that,” Bolton said before Trump’s news conference with Abe.
“All I know is there have been no nuclear tests," Trump said, "no ballistic missiles going out, no long-range missiles going out, and I think that someday we’ll have a deal.” Trump said he was in “no rush.” He praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, calling him a “smart man” who might have launched the missiles this month to “get attention.”
Bolton's role exaggerated, experts contend
The apparent disconnect has raised questions across the globe about Trump's foreign policy. Some fear Bolton is driving Trump into a perilous military confrontation with Iran, America's principal foe in the Middle East.
National security experts inside and outside the White House said Bolton's role has been exaggerated – and his influence on the president has been overstated, particularly when it comes to the prospect of a costly war with Iran.
Trump has made it clear he doesn't like the idea and is generally averse to foreign military entanglements.
Asked this month if his administration is marching toward war with Iran, Trump offered a three-word response: "I hope not."
Bolton is simply playing his part in a geopolitical dance designed to send a hard-line message to the Iranian regime, said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based foreign policy research institute that supports strong pressure on Iran.
"Bolton in many ways is from central casting if you were looking for a consummate hawk," said Dubowitz, who has advised the Trump administration and previous presidents on Iran policy. "It’s all useful from the psyops perspective."
Dubowitz said the White House deliberately trumpeted its decision to send B-52 bombers and other military forces to Iran, purposefully said that move was in response to threats from Iran and intentionally used Bolton as a key messenger.
"I think it’s actually a well-orchestrated campaign that has a public relations piece, a military positioning piece (and) obviously the economic financial piece" of escalating sanctions, Dubowitz said. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are the perfect "bad cops," he said, to make Iran – and the rest of the world – nervous about Trump's intentions.
"Trump can go from fire and fury to writing love letters, so he has a certain amount of diplomatic flexibility," he said. "One minute he can be as bellicose as Bolton, and the next he can shout, 'Hey, hi there. Do you want to talk.' "
That's what Trump seemed to be doing this month, when he met with the president of the Swiss government, which has mediated between Iran and the United States.
"I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon," Trump tweeted Wednesday in a pair of messages. The president used social media to downplay reports of divisions within the administration over Iran.
"There is no infighting whatsoever," Trump said. "Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process."
Concern in Congress over statements
Lawmakers are not reassured.
"This president has surrounded himself with people – Pompeo and Bolton in particular – who believe that getting tough on a military basis with Iran is in our best interest. I do not," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber's No. 2 Democratic leader.
Durbin and other lawmakers said Bolton's statements on Iran and his trumpeting of questionable intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003 are deeply concerning.
Before Bolton joined the Trump administration, he advocated for regime change in Iran. He played a key role in pushing for the U.S. invasion of Iraq during George W. Bush's administration, which relied on faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein's chemical and nuclear weapons program.
Durbin said the situation with Iran has become so tense and the rhetoric so hot that even if Trump has no desire for war, he may stumble into it.
He noted that the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran and at war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, could launch an attack that might inadvertently kill an American service member.
"I fear ... we’re going to have a Gulf of Tonkin moment, where there is some American or serviceman who is going to be injured or killed and people are going to be calling for retribution," Durbin said.
Bolton is one of many advisers Trump speaks to about Iran and other foreign policy issues, said current and former officials. He hears a lot of different views and often throws out ideas of his own – sometimes ideas he doesn't really plan to pursue.
Throughout his presidency, Trump's sounding boards have ranged from super hawks such as Bolton to cautious types such as Jim Mattis, who was defense secretary. From anti-China tariff warriors such as Peter Navarro to more market-oriented types such as Larry Kudlow.
At some point – no one else knows how or when – Trump suddenly makes a decision. He often announces things before informing staff members, sometimes by tweet and sometimes by statements to inquiring reporters.
"It's not exactly chaos," one former staff member said. "But it's not orderly."
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Bolton and the president are on the same page.
"Working closely with President Trump’s national security team, Ambassador Bolton continues to coordinate the president’s guidance to protect American personnel and interests from Iranian threats abroad," he said.
Trump and his advisers chafe at claims that Bolton is some kind of "puppet master" leading Trump into war. Having campaigned against "stupid wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump is highly unlikely to order military action against Iran, administration officials said, despite the rising beat of war drums from Bolton and others.
Talk of war with Iran is "way ahead of where things are" within the administration, particularly with Trump, one official said.
The exception would be if Iran attacked U.S. personnel in the Middle East, officials said
Trump often sticks with his pre-existing views, and his default position in foreign policy tends to be against intervention. He has pushed to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria, over the objections of military advisers. Mattis resigned in part over Trump's plan – later modified – to withdraw troops from Syria.
For all his criticism of the George W. Bush administration's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump has as his national security adviser a major proponent of those interventions.
Durbin said he fears he's watching a replay of the debate for the Iraq War.
"The weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a fiction, and we were just stampeding into this invasion at that time," he said. "I see it again, all over again."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Despite Trump's stance, Bolton amps up accusations of Iran sabotage, desire for nuclear weapons