The Trump administration has no idea what it wants to do about Iran

President Donald TrumpPresident Donald TrumpPatrick Semansky / AP

  • President Donald Trump has flip-flopped on Iran repeatedly in recent months, but especially over the past week.
  • It took less than a week for Trump to transition from opening the door for diplomatic talks and concessions to beating the war drum.
  • The abrupt shift comes after two major Saudi oil fields were attacked, which US officials have blamed on Iran.
  • Trump said the US is "locked and loaded" to respond to the incident, but his inconsistency when it comes to Iran gives US allies and Tehran myriad reasons to doubt his words.
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The Trump administration can't make up its mind when it comes to dealing with Iran.

In the course of about a week, the administration has shifted from opening the door for diplomacy with Iran to alluding to possible military strikes against it.

Last week, President Donald Trump showed signs he's ready to find a route toward ending the impasse by meeting with Iran's president at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in late September. This would resolve months of rising tensions and fears of another Middle Eastern conflict.

Read more: Trump couldn't handle that Bolton wasn't a yes man, so he fired him

But after an attack on two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, however, the prospect of peace between the US and Iran once again appeared to be a distant reality.

Here's a quick rundown of the administration's rapidly changing stance toward Iran over the past week, which is emblematic of its lack of a coherent strategy:

  • On September 9, when asked if he'd be open to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the president told reporters: "It could happen. It could happen. Yeah. No problem with meeting. Iran should straighten out because, frankly, they're in very bad position right now and they should straighten it out, because they could straighten it out very easily."
  • On September 10, Trump dismissed John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton has a long and well-documented record of hawkish sentiments toward Iran, including supporting military strikes. His departure was a potential sign the administration was ready for a more diplomatic approach.
  • Just hours after Trump announced Bolton's ousting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that Trump has has "made very clear he is prepared to meet" with Rouhani "with no preconditions." Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the same thing.
  • On September 11, Trump left the door open to easing sanctions on Iran in order to secure a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. "We'll see what happens," he said when asked if he would consider this route.
  • The Trump administration has pursued a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, trying to force it to the negotiation table via crippling economic sanctions. Backing away from this on any level would be a huge shift in policy for Trump.
  • On September 12, it was reported Trump was considering a French plan to allow a $15 billion credit line for Iran if would agree to come back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • Trump pulled the US out of the Obama-era nuclear deal in May 2018, and US-Iran relations have spiraled downward ever since. His decision to withdraw from the deal was against the advice of nuclear and foreign policy experts, and decried by key US allies including France.
  • On September 14, two major Saudi oil plants were attacked. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran directly.
  • Pompeo tweeted: "The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression."
  • On September 15, Trump tweeted that the US knew who the "culprit" of the strikes on the oil plants were, and that it was "locked and loaded" to respond depending on verification.
  • Trump also tweeted that it was "Fake News" that he's willing to meet with Iran with no conditions, contradicting what his top advisers publicly stated less than a week before. Trump in June also said he'd be willing to hold talks with Iran with no preconditions.

In short, it took about seven days for Trump to transition from opening the door for diplomatic talks and concessions to beating the war drum. In the process, he contradicted himself and his top advisers.

Iran has denied it had any involvement in the Saudi oil plant attacks, but the Saudi-led coalition on Monday said Iranian weapons were used and that the attack did not originate in Yemen - rejecting that the Houthi rebels were responsible.

Trump's inconsistency on Iran makes it hard to take him seriously

What happens next is unclear, but the the president has seemingly paved the way for the US to conduct military strikes against Iran. At the same time, the US has recently been in this situation before and Trump ultimately did nothing military other than ratchet up sanctions.

After two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman in mid-June, the Trump administration blamed Iran and the incidents seemed to increase the chance of a military clash as the US sent troops to the region in the days that followed. But Trump eventually dismissed the incidents as "very minor," pumping the brakes on a potential military response.

Read more: Here's what's in the landmark nuclear deal that Iran just violated amid tensions with Trump

Not long after, Trump nearly approved strikes against Iran in June after it shot down a US Navy drone, tweeting, "Iran made a very big mistake!" But the president called the strikes off at the last minute, saying such a response would not have been proportionate to the downing of an unmanned aircraft.

Trump's wishy-washy record on Iran suggests he has no idea what he wants to do about it. And his inconsistency on the issue gives both US allies and Tehran many reasons to doubt his words, regardless of whether he's offering peace or threats.

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