March 23, 2020
The White House witnessed this week a tense debate between the US president and his top advisers whether Washington should escalate military action against Iran.
“One group, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, urged a tough response to rocket attacks that had killed two American troops at a base north of Baghdad, arguing that tough action while Iran’s leaders were battling the coronavirus ravaging the country could finally push them into direct negotiations,” The New York Times reported.
But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back because the Pentagon and intelligence agencies did not have clear evidence that the attacks, launched by Iran-backed Khataib Hezbollah, had been ordered by Tehran, it said.
Esper and Milley warned that a large-scale response could draw the US into a wider war with Iran and rupture already strained relations with Iraq.
“The meeting is a glimpse of the crosswinds buffeting the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran and its powerful proxies in Iraq” less than three months after the US president ordered the killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad.
The New York Times quoted American officials as saying that there is little appetite among Trump and some of his top advisers for a dangerous escalation with Iran, and leaders in Tehran are now consumed trying to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
One primary goal of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions is to so cripple Iran’s economy that the government will agree to negotiate a new agreement over its nuclear program, it said. That has not happened, and many American intelligence officials and regional experts don’t believe Iran is close to making such a move — especially with the chance that Trump could lose the US presidential elections.
In the meantime, administration officials are reviewing an array of additional targets in Iraq, including more Iran-backed militia weapons depots and logistics storehouses, as well as strikes against militia leaders and possibly Iranian ships. Covert operations and cyberattacks are also under consideration, officials said.