As Critics Accuse Administration of Hyping Iran Threat, Trump Talks About Talks

By Patrick Goodenough | May 17, 2019 | 4:29am EDT
President Trump welcomes Swiss President Ueli Maurer to the White House on May 16, 2019. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

( – As Democrat lawmakers accuse the administration of hyping the threat posed by Iran, President Trump himself continues to signal a willingness to talk to the regime.

Over the past week, Trump has spoken several times about the possibility of talks with Iran, and his meeting at the White House Thursday with the president of the Swiss confederation added to speculation about possible diplomatic initiatives.

Since U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations were severed during the 1979 Islamic revolution Switzerland has represented U.S. interests in Iran, providing consular services to U.S. citizens living in or visiting the country.

“President Trump expressed his gratitude for Switzerland’s role in facilitating international mediation and diplomatic relations on behalf of the United States,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said after the meeting.

Swiss media said President Ueli Maurer had been invited to Washington at short notice. They noted that Switzerland serves as the U.S. “protecting power” both in Iran and now in Venezuela.

Also on Thursday, the State Department said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken by phone to the sultan of Oman, among other things thanking Oman for “its continued engagement and dialogue on the region’s most challenging issues.”

Oman has in the past served as an intermediary between Iran and other countries, and provided a back channel for Iran-U.S. talks during the Obama administration.

Despite increased tensions in the region, Pompeo has stressed more than once this week that the U.S. is not looking for a war with Iran.

The language from the White House, too, has been relatively placatory.

A week ago Trump said the Iranians should be “calling me up, sitting down.” He also suggested that, like North Korea, Iran could benefit significantly financially by doing a deal with the U.S.

On the same day, CNN reported that the White House had asked the Swiss government to give the Iranians its phone number so they could call.

A tanker is visible in the background as the U.S. Navy assault ship USS Kearsarge transits the Strait of Hormuz on May 7, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Casey Moore)

Then on Monday, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement, “The president has been clear, the United States does not seek military conflict with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership.”

He added, “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we are ready to defend U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”

After media outlets reported on “infighting” within the administration over Iran policy, Trump on Wednesday dismissed the reporting, and again expressed optimism that the Iranians would want to hold talks – “soon.”

The public response from the regime has thus far been negative.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday ruled out talks with the U.S., saying negotiations would be “poisonous,” and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif concurred two days later, saying during a visit to Japan that “there is no possibility for negotiations.”


In the U.S., critics are accusing the administration of exaggerating the Iran threat, in a drive to go to war. References to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident have become commonplace, along with references to the lead-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.

“I think we are nearing a Gulf of Tonkin moment if we’re not careful,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told MSNBC.

“It’s clear the Iranians – I mean, let’s be honest about it – they are fomenting terrorism and doing things in the Middle East which are totally unacceptable, and we ought to make that clear,” he conceded. “But they may do something that is provocative, that involves an American serviceman for example, that this president or [National Security Advisor] John Bolton will use as an excuse to move forward with more military action.”

Congressional leaders on Thursday received a classified briefing on Iran, and afterwards Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) – who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness – suggested to CNN and Fox Business that the administration was overreacting, citing the Gulf of Tonkin incident in both interviews.

Earlier Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is campaigning for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination, released a video statement warning about a repeat of the Iraq war, except worse.

“The United States Congress must do everything it can to prevent the Trump administration’s attempts to put us on the brink of a catastrophic and unconstitutional war with Iran that could lead to even more deaths than the Iraq war,” Sanders said.

Meanwhile Pompeo’s British counterpart on Thursday reaffirmed that Britain shares the U.S. administration’s view that Iran poses a “heightened threat.”

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he and Pompeo had discussed the matter in London last week and again in Brussels early this week Monday.

“We share the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran,” he added. “As always we work closely with the U.S.”

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