Donald Trump undercut his more hawkish security advisers on Tuesday by downplaying the alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers as "very minor" even as the US ordered another 1,000 troops to the Middle East.
While members of Mr Trump’s administration have warned the US was considering a military retaliation to the Gulf of Oman attacks, the president himself raised doubts about America’s willingness to use force.
“So far, it’s been very minor,” Mr Trump said of the attacks on oil ships. He told Time magazine he would "certainly" use force to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon but would keep "a question mark" over his response to the incidents in the Gulf.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, also said his country was not seeking conflict but would stand resolute in the face of crippling US sanctions. "We do not wage war with any nation," he said.
Mr Trump’s comments only deepened the confusion about US policy towards Iran and is the latest in a string of situations where the president has contradicted his most senior national security advisers.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said the oil tanker attacks "present a clear threat to international peace" and warned over the weekend that the US was weighing a military response.
Ruchika Mathur, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Mr Trump was anxious to avoid a war with Iran that could damage his chances of re-election next year.
"We still do not expect a military confrontation. This is largely because we believe that Donald Trump is primarily motivated by a desire to win the 2020 presidential election. In the previous election he pledged to keep the US out of expensive wars and to draw down its military activities in the Middle East," she said.
The US military released a new set of images of what it said were Iranian forces trying to dispose of evidence by removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers damaged in the Gulf of Oman.
Although clearer than a grainy video released last week, the images do not show Revolutionary Guard forces actually planting the mine or otherwise attacking the oil tanker.
Despite Mr Trump’s softer tone, the Pentagon announced late Monday that it was deploying an additional 1,000 US troops to the Middle East for defensive purposes.
Gulf of Oman, US responds
“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” said Patrick Shanahan, the acting defence secretary. “The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests.”
Since early May, the US has ordered an aircraft carrier, a bomber task force, several anti-missile batteries, and a total of 2,500 extra troops to the Middle East.
Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said the continual build up of US forces was part of a “conscious course to provoke war.”
“What we see are unending and sustained US attempts to crank up political, psychological, economic and yes military pressure on Iran in quite a provocative way,” he said.
The first deployments of extra US forces was announced in early May by John Bolton, Mr Trump’s hawkish national security adviser. However, the president has reportedly grown frustrated at Mr Bolton and ordered him to tone down his rhetoric.
“I’m the one who tempers him, which is OK,” Mr Trump said in May. “I have John Bolton and I have people who are a little more dovish than him.”
Meanwhile, the world is counting down to June 27, when Iran says it will breach the 2015 nuclear deal by exceeding the limits on its enriched uranium stockpile unless Europe finds a way to get around US sanctions and aid Iran’s faltering economy.
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