President Trump, flanked by national security adviser John Bolton, on the second day of the NATO Summit on July 12 in Brussels.

President Trump, flanked by national security adviser John Bolton, on the second day of the NATO Summit on July 12 in Brussels.


Sean Gallup/Getty Images


Four days after President Trump’s stern warning via Twitter to Iranian President

Hassan Rouhani,

national security adviser

John Bolton

is scheduled to hold a meeting Thursday of Pentagon and other top officials on the administration’s emerging strategy on Iran.

The meeting, which follows Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and reimpose tough economic sanctions on Tehran, comes as key elements of the administration’s Iran policy remain unclear.

Among them: what U.S. might give in return for a new agreement with Tehran, and whether Washington is prepared to use military force along with economic pressure to roll back Iran’s assertive posture in the Middle East.

The discussions are to take place among members of the administration’s Principals Committee, a Cabinet-level panel on national security issues that Mr. Bolton chairs and whose members include Defense Secretary

Jim Mattis,

Joint Chiefs Chairman

Gen. Joseph Dunford,

Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo,

among other senior officials.

The White House hasn’t announced the meeting, but administration officials said it would be just the third time that Mr. Bolton has convened the group since assuming his post in April.

It is unclear what military options, if any, Pentagon officials might bring to the table. In the past, the Defense Department has worked on limited military options, such as stopping Iranian weapons and equipment from reaching the Houthis, who are battling the U.S.-backed government in Yemen.

The Pentagon, however, isn’t eager to get into a war with Iran at a time when its strategy emphasizes building up capabilities to deter Russia and China, and the outcome of talks with North Korea is still uncertain. On Tuesday, Mr. Mattis deflected a question on which Iranian actions might trigger a U.S. military response, saying, “It’s time for Iran to shape up and show responsibility.”

From the start of his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has been an unwavering critic of the 2015 agreement that constrained Iran’s nuclear program.


H.R. McMaster

served as national security adviser, the administration conducted a review of Iran policy as reflected in a speech Mr. Trump gave in October 2017. In it, he announced steps, including working with allies to counter Tehran’s “destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies” in the Middle East.

After Mr. Trump decided in May to leave the accord, Mr. Pompeo outlined 12 requirements for reaching a new agreement with Iran, including the end of Iran’s support for militant groups in the region and the prohibition on uranium enrichment.

To isolate Tehran economically and politically, the administration also threatened sanctions on nations that will not end imports of oil from Iran by Nov. 4.

In a speech in Kansas City, Mo., to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said that he was “ready to make a real deal” with Iran. But some former officials believe the goal of others in the administration is to weaken and perhaps even destabilize the Iranian regime.

“What we see from Trump himself is the notion that he can negotiate a bigger and better deal by using pressure to bring the Iranians back to the table with more American leverage,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who is at the Brookings Institution. “That view isn’t shared by others in the administration like the national security adviser and secretary of State who see sanctions as an end in itself.”

Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo have insisted they are not pursuing regime change.

Additional questions include whether the U.S. can form a united front with European nations that have sought to preserve the 2015 nuclear agreement, and whether Washington might take military steps to increase the pressure on Iran.

“Any strategy requires a clear objective and the means to pursue that objective,” said

Dennis Ross,

a former diplomat who is at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Right now, I am not sure what the objective is, and the only means being used are rhetoric and sanctions.”

Ray Takeyh

of the Council on Foreign Relations, however, defended the Trump administration’s approach of stiffening U.S. demands that Iran curtail its nuclear activities while pushing back on its behavior in the region.

“The policy is conceptually sound, and now the question is the operationalization of it,” he said. “There is a recognition that there is domestic discontent and an attempt to exploit that vulnerability. The economic side of the policy is becoming quite mature and at the end of the day that is probably the most important element of it.”

Before the Helsinki summit, Mr. Bolton voiced hope that Mr. Trump and Russian President

Vladimir Putin

might work together to scale back Iran’s role in Syria. But U.S. intelligence experts say that Russia may not have the interest and ability to get Iranian forces out of Syria, and no agreement toward this end was announced in Helsinki.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com, Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

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