As President Donald Trump weighed how to respond to a Sept. 14 drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities, which temporarily cut the kingdom’s output in half and roiled markets, he had several options. One, U.S. officials briefed on the White House deliberations tell TIME, was familiar: a Pentagon plan to bomb Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps targets on Persian Gulf islands. Trump was offered that plan after the Iranians shot down a U.S. Navy drone on June 20, and top advisers recommended he act on it then, but he turned it down, the officials say.
A second option was quite different. In recent weeks, Trump had pressed aides to arrange for him to talk to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City at the end of September. One idea, the officials say, was to set up a moment of stagecraft when France’s President Emmanuel Macron would be talking to Rouhani and, seemingly impromptu, encourage Trump, press cameras in tow, to join them. Trump went with a third option: slapping new sanctions on Iran. Now, Iran may back out of the U.N. gathering altogether.
That Trump was even considering meeting with Rouhani was remarkable. No U.S. President has met with an Iranian leader since the 1970s. Iran has upped its uranium enrichment program and increased attacks on world energy supplies and U.S. allies in the Middle East in recent months, targeting ships in and around the Gulf on May 12 and June 13. (Iran denies it was involved.) Days later, it shot down a Global Hawk surveillance drone, before allegedly hitting the world’s largest oil-processing plant. Trump’s desire for a meeting with Iran “is absurd at this point,” says Mark Dubowitz of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. But apparently, he says, “regardless of how destructive the regime in Iran’s behavior is, that will not dissuade him.”
The episode lays bare Trump’s faith that he can solve the world’s most challenging and dangerous conflicts, from the Middle East to Afghanistan and North Korea, with a promiscuous combination of bravado and bonhomie. But recent events have shown the costs of that approach. As Trump pursued and then called off peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban, a series of Taliban-linked attacks killed at least 50 people this month. He continues to tout the possibility of peace with North Korea, even as Kim Jong Un tests missiles that could reach American and allied targets in the region. And the attack on Saudi oil facilities, which Trump’s aides attributed to Iran even as he hedged, spiked global oil prices by more than 10%, an ominous sign for the world economy–and for a President seeking re-election.
The Iran challenge, to Trump’s critics, is a crisis of his own making. His Administration has been headed toward confrontation with Tehran since last year, when he walked away from the 2015 deal that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, then imposed ever tighter sanctions on its oil and other exports, triggering an exodus of foreign corporations and financial institutions. Iran’s oil exports have plunged to historic lows, crippling its economy. “Trump finds himself backed into a corner because for a year now he has marched down an escalatory path while insisting he doesn’t want a conflict,” says Jeffrey Prescott, former senior adviser on the region under President Obama. U.S. intelligence officials, who believe Iran is behind the strike, are divided over Tehran’s motives. One camp has told Trump the recent attack reflects the economic pressure Iran feels and is a sign of increasing desperation. Another sees Iran’s months of strikes as Tehran testing Trump.
None of which makes it easier to come up with a longer-term response to Iran’s latest moves. The Pentagon has long argued against a direct military strike on the Iranian mainland for fears that could trigger a wider war. Moreover, Tehran has maintained some deniability over the attack. Two Cabinet secretaries publicly attributed the attack to Iran, and military officials told Trump as recently as Sept. 16 that “they were planned and directed by Iranian officers with the knowledge of the government,” says a defense official. A Saudi military spokesman said debris showed Iran “unquestionably sponsored” the strikes. But the U.S. and its allies reportedly failed to track the incoming projectiles, apparently because they were advanced cruise missiles and low-flying drones.
Diplomacy offers its own problems. Macron is pushing a plan to create a $15 billion line of credit for Iran, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has backed it, says a U.S. official briefed on the discussions. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the official says, has argued that easing pressure on Iran before it makes concessions on its nuclear program or reduces its use of proxy forces in the region would be dangerous, as it would reward that behavior. And if conflict with Iran would be bad politics for Trump in an election year, making a bad deal with Iran could be worse.
The dilemma leaves him in an unusual spot, the sources familiar with White House talks say: looking for help from allies. “They want to respond, but as a group, or with allies,” says a former senior Trump Administration official in contact with U.S. and Gulf officials. That response will test Trump’s seemingly conflicting impulses, to look tough and to get the U.S. out of conflicts.
–With reporting by KIM DOZIER and W.J. HENNIGAN/WASHINGTON
This appears in the September 30, 2019 issue of TIME.