President Trump’s National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year, generating concern at the Pentagon and State Department, current and former U.S. officials said.
The request, which hasn’t been previously reported, came after militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s sprawling diplomatic quarter, home to the U.S. Embassy, on a warm night in early September. The shells—launched by a group aligned with Iran—landed in an open lot and harmed no one.
But they triggered unusual alarm in Washington, where Mr. Trump’s national security team led by John Bolton conducted a series of meetings to discuss a forceful U.S. response, including what many saw as the unusual request for options to strike Iran.
“It definitely rattled people,” a former senior U.S. administration official said of the request. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
The Pentagon complied with the NSC’s request to develop options for striking Iran, the officials said. But it isn’t clear if the proposals were provided to the White House, whether Mr. Trump knew of the request or whether serious plans for a U.S. strike against Iran took shape at that time.
Garrett Marquis, an NSC spokesman, said the body “coordinates policy and provides the president with options to anticipate and respond to a variety of threats.”
“We continue to review the status of our personnel following attempted attacks on our embassy in Baghdad and our Basra consulate, and we will consider a full range of options to preserve their safety and our interests,” he said.
As national security adviser, Mr. Bolton is charged with providing a range of diplomatic, military and economic advice to the president.
Former U.S. officials said it was unnerving that the NSC asked for far-reaching military options to strike Iran in response to attacks that caused little damage and no injuries.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis argued against strikes that might hit Russian and Iranian forces when Mr. Trump and his national security team were looking at ways to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for a chemical-weapons attack, people familiar with the debate said. Mr. Mattis, who resigned in December amid a dispute with Mr. Trump over the president’s national security decisions, pushed for a more modest response that Mr. Trump eventually embraced.
In talks with other administration officials, Mr. Bolton has made it clear he personally supports regime change in Iran, a position he championed before joining Mr. Trump’s administration, people familiar with the discussions said.
As a think-tank scholar and Fox News commentator, Mr. Bolton repeatedly urged the U.S. to attack Iran, including in a 2015 New York Times op-ed titled, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”
After taking the White House post, Mr. Bolton joined forces with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to develop a more aggressive policy aimed at weakening the government in Tehran. Mr. Bolton has said his job is to implement the president’s agenda, which doesn’t include regime change in Tehran. The State Department declined to comment.
Mr. Bolton worked last year to quickly pull the U.S. out of former President Obama’s nuclear-containment deal with the country and to tighten economic sanctions on Tehran, moves eagerly sought by Mr. Trump. In a September speech, Mr. Bolton warned Tehran that there would be “hell to pay” if Iran threatened the U.S. or its allies.
Mr. Bolton and his deputy at the time, Mira Ricardel, were pressing for new ways to confront Iran militarily.
The Sept. 6 mortar attack in Baghdad generated little news coverage. The city’s Green Zone has been a frequent target for insurgents since the U.S. invasion in 2003. A Shiite militia group aligned with Iran eventually claimed responsibility for the attack.
Two days later, amid anti-Iranian protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, unknown militants fired three rockets that hit relatively close to the U.S. consulate, but caused no serious damage.
No one claimed responsibility for the second attack, but White House officials decided they needed to send a clear message to Iran.
Alongside the requests in regards to Iran, the NSC asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with options to respond with strikes in Iraq and Syria as well, people familiar with the talks said.
In one meeting, Ms. Ricardel described the attacks in Iraq as “an act of war” and said the U.S. had to respond decisively, a person familiar with the meeting said.
Ms. Ricardel, who was forced out of her job in November after a feud with first lady Melania Trump, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Current and former U.S. officials said there have been discussions about her taking a new job at the Pentagon.
As the administration discussed the U.S. response last fall, the White House issued a two-paragraph statement on Sept. 11 that seemed to warn of a possible military strike.
“The United States will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to United States government facilities,” the White House said.
Two weeks later, Mr. Pompeo made it clear the U.S. was willing to target Iran for the actions of its allies in Iraq.
“Iran will be held accountable for those incidents,” he said in a Sept. 21 CNN interview.
“Even militarily?” asked CNN’s Elise Labott.
“They’re going to be held accountable,” Mr. Pompeo replied. “If they’re responsible for the arming and training of these militias, we’re going to go to the source.”
Mr. Trump’s administration has kept up the public threats. This month, Mr. Pompeo again warned Tehran when it announced plans to launch two satellites into space, a move the Trump administration said would help the country advance its missile-launching abilities.
“We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security,” Mr. Pompeo said in a tweet on Jan. 3.
During a trip to Israel this month, Mr. Bolton suggested that Mr. Trump was willing to strike Iran if he thought Tehran was close to developing a nuclear weapon.
“The president looks at all his options constantly,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview with talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt that aired on Friday. “On a subject of this seriousness, this is something we coordinate very closely with Israel on, but for reasons I’m sure you can understand, we have to keep our cards close to the vest.”
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at email@example.com
Appeared in the January 14, 2019, print edition as ‘White House Asked Pentagon For Options to Strike at Iran.’