Washington, May 18 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump won the White House pledging to wind down the nation's many foreign entanglements and put "America First." But as his administration in recent days has sent mixed signals on the prospects of a military conflict with Iran, Trump's campaign trail promise is being put to the test.
With the 2020 election approaching, the political pitfalls ahead for the first-term Republican president could be serious.
While Trump enjoys overwhelming support from his party, there is little appetite among his loyalists for a new military conflict in the Middle East. Many are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, but a string of recent moves has sparked concerns that the administration was beating the drums toward war. Among the possible precursors to military conflict: new sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the region and public warnings of unspecified intelligence that Iran might strike at American interests.
Asked this week if the U.S. was going to war with Iran, Trump said simply: "I hope not."
Aware of the potential backlash from within his party, the president is trying to play down the possibility of hostilities. He held the door open for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and malign activities in the region amid reports that he was pushing back against his more hawkish advisers' preference for a military solution.
Prominent Trump supporters offered a pointed warning on Friday about the prospect of a new war, which they view as a direct violation of his "America First" pledge.
"It would be a disaster for him and for the country getting into another military engagement in the Middle East," said Corey Stewart, who led Trump's 2016 campaign in Virginia. "It does concern me that the president has (national security adviser John) Bolton and a lot of these neocons advising him. That's clearly not what he ran on and what most Americans want."
Foreign policy threatens to be a significant political liability for Trump heading into his 2020 reelection campaign.
Overall, 63 percent of Americans said they disapproved of his job handling foreign policy, according to a January poll conducted by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Like other issues, the partisan divide was overwhelming: 76 percent of Republicans approved, while just 8 percent of Democrats said the same.
Yet the Republican Party under Trump's leadership has shifted away from wanting the United States to play an aggressive role in world affairs. Foreign policy hawks in the GOP who have long embraced a muscular foreign policy have been marginalized in recent years, dismissed as "globalists."
By contrast, Democrats are now far more likely than Republicans to say the U.S. should play a more active role in solving the world's problems.
In the AP poll, 43 percent of Democrats said they thought the U.S. should be more active abroad, compared to just 13 percent of Republicans.
Trump on Friday sought to blame the media for the sense of mounting unease over Iran.
"They put out so many false messages that Iran is totally confused," he told a crowd of real estate agents in Washington, complaining about media coverage of his administration's recent moves. "I don't know, that might be a good thing."
People close to the president acknowledge that an armed conflict in the region is a real possibility.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a Trump confidant, signaled support for a military solution if needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — so long as the United States wouldn't take the lead role in a prospective war.
"Whatever needs to be done to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power needs to happen," Falwell said in an interview. "I'm not saying the United States needs to do it. Somebody is going to need to do it."
He added: "The way that it balances out, it might be Saudi Arabia and Israel that go to war with Iran."
J.D. Gordon, director of national security for Trump's first campaign, described Iran as "a delicate balance" for the president, who is surrounded by advisers who "generally agree with his worldview."
"Preventing an aggressive state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons through primarily economic and diplomatic pressure isn't as simple as many people would like us to believe," Gordon said.
While military conflict would likely be unpopular among Republican voters, the politics on Iran are nuanced.
For years, Republicans railed against the multination pact struck under former President Barack Obama to remove economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country's pledge to abandon its nuclear program. Trump last year withdrew from the deal, thrilling Israel and anti-Obama conservatives at home while troubling European allies who insisted it was working.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran takes a paramount position in Trump's worldview, with the president believing the country poses a particularly destructive threat.
"I think one should never discount the political calculation, which is that he knows a significant part of his base, including tens of millions of evangelical Christians, agree with him," Dubowitz said.
The passionate opposition to the Iran deal among Trump's core supporters affords him some room to maneuver amid the military buildup, even if "America First" conservatives oppose an outright war.
"I haven't met anybody who thinks we shouldn't take an incredibly hard line against Iran," said Mark Meckler, an early leader in the tea party movement. At the same time, he said, "Nobody believes there's going to be a war."
"What Trump promised in regards to our foreign policy is 'America First,'" Meckler continued. "He's doing that."
Baghdad, May 18 (AP/UNB) — When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with Iraqi officials in Baghdad last week as tensions mounted between America and Iran, he delivered a nuanced message: If you're not going to stand with us, stand aside.
The message, relayed to The Associated Press by two Iraqi government officials, underscores Iraq's delicate position: Its government is allied with both sides of an increasingly contentious confrontation.
As tensions escalate, there are concerns that Baghdad could once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.
"The big question is how Iraqi leaders will deal with (their) national interests in a country where loyalty to external powers is widespread at the expense of their own nation," Iraqi political analyst Watheq al-Hashimi said. "If the state cannot put these (Iranian-backed militias) under control, Iraq will become an arena for an Iranian-American armed conflict."
Despite a series of provocative moves on both sides, President Donald Trump has said he doesn't want a war with Iran and has even said he is open to dialogue. But tension remains high, in part given the region's fraught history.
For Iraq to be a theater for proxy wars is not new. The Shiite-majority country lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, led by powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and has long been a battlefield in which the Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy played out.
During America's eight-year military presence that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops and Iranian-backed militiamen fought pitched battles around the country, and scores of U.S. troops were killed or wounded by the militia forces armed with sophisticated Iranian-made weapons.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle the Islamic State group after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. Iranian-backed militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against IS, gaining outsized influence and power.
Now, amid an escalating conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq is once again vulnerable to becoming caught up in the power play. An attack targeting U.S. interests in Iraq would be detrimental to the country's recent efforts at recovering and reclaiming its status in the Arab world.
Earlier this year, Trump provoked outrage in Baghdad when he said he wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq so they can "watch Iran," suggesting a changing mission for American troops there.
On May 8, Pompeo made a lightning, previously unannounced trip to the Iraqi capital following the abrupt cancellation of a visit to Germany, and as the United States had been picking up intelligence that Iran is threatening American interests in the Middle East.
The two Iraqi officials said Pompeo relayed intelligence information the U.S. had received about a threat to U.S. forces in Iraq — but kept it vague. They said he did not specify the nature of the threat. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to divulge confidential information, said Pompeo told the Iraqis that America did not expect them to side with the U.S. in any confrontation with Iran, but that they should not side against America. In other words, stand aside.
A few days later, as U.S.-Iranian tensions continued to rise, the State Department ordered all non-essential, non-emergency government staff to leave the country.
U.S. officials said Pompeo told the Iraqis the U.S. had an "inherent right to self-defense" and would use it if U.S. personnel, facilities or interests are attacked by Iran or its proxies in Iraq or anywhere else.
The three officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the private meetings in Baghdad and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pompeo was not contemplating any pre-emptive strikes on Iran or the use of Iraqi territory to stage military operations against Iran. Pompeo's message, the officials said, was that the U.S. wants to avoid conflict but would respond or defend itself if necessary.
The secretary told reporters on the flight that his meetings with Iraq's president and prime minister were intended to demonstrate U.S. support for "a sovereign, independent" Iraq, free from the influence of neighboring Iran. Pompeo also said he wanted to underscore Iraq's need to protect Americans in their country.
A general at Iraq's Defense Ministry said Iraq was taking precautionary security measures in light of the information about threats against U.S. interests, although those measures have not reached the highest levels.
"Iraqi forces are worried that American forces could be targeted by factions loyal to Iran," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He added that any attack on U.S. troops could come as retaliation if the United States were to carry out a military operation against Iran.
The heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. come a year after Trump pulled America out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers and as the White House ordered an aircraft carrier and bombers into the region over a still-unexplained threat from Iran.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers off its eastern coast were targeted by sabotage. On Tuesday, Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels said they launched seven drones to target Saudi Arabia. The drones stuck pumping stations along the kingdom's crucial East-West Pipeline, causing minor damage, Saudi officials say.
On the streets of Baghdad, some shrugged off the rising tensions while others worried their country could be sucked into another war.
Aqil Rubaei said he was worried that his country, which has been at war since a year before he was born, will be the place where the U.S. and Iran will settle their accounts. The 38-year-old was born in 1981, a year after Iran and Iraq began their eight-year war and was 9 years old when Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait leading to a destructive war that forced Iraq out of Kuwait and 13 years of crippling sanctions.
In 2003, the U.S. invaded and removed Saddam, leading to the rise of extremist groups that culminated in 2014 with the Islamic State group capturing large parts of Iraq and Syria and declaring a so-called caliphate. The war that followed left entire Iraqi cities and towns destroyed until Iraq declared victory in 2017.
"Iraqi people are fed up with war," said Rubaei inside his cosmetics shop in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. "We don't want Iraq to become an arena for an Iranian-American war."
Dubai, May 15 (AP/UNB) — A satellite image obtained by The Associated Press shows one of the two pumping stations attacked by drones in Saudi Arabia apparently intact.
The image from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc. that the AP examined on Wednesday shows Saudi Aramco's Pumping Station No. 8 outside of the town of al-Duadmi. It's 330 kilometers, or 205 miles, west of the capital, Riyadh.
The photo, taken Tuesday after the attack claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, shows two black marks near where Saudi Arabia's East-West Pipeline passes by the facility. Those marks weren't there in images taken Monday.
The facility otherwise appears intact.
The attack came as regional tensions flared, just days after what the kingdom called an attack on two of its oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai, May 14 (AP/UNB) — Four oil tankers anchored in the Mideast were damaged by what Gulf officials described as sabotage, though satellite images obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday showed no major visible damage to the vessels.
Details of the alleged sabotage to two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati oil tanker on Sunday remained unclear, and Gulf officials have declined to say who they suspected was responsible. But it demonstrated the raised risks for shippers in a region vital to global energy supplies as tensions are increasing between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The U.S. has warned sailors of the potential for attacks on commercial sea traffic, and regional allies of the United Arab Emirates condemned the alleged sabotage as the tankers were off the coast of the UAE port city of Fujairah.
A U.S. official in Washington, without offering any evidence, told the AP that an American military team's initial assessment indicated Iran or Iranian allies used explosives to blow holes in the ships. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation, agreed to reveal the findings only if not quoted by name. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast and operates from a base in Fujairah, has repeatedly declined to comment.
The U.S. already had warned ships that "Iran or its proxies" could be targeting maritime traffic in the region. America is deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged, still-unspecified threats from Tehran.
Citing heightened tensions in the region, the United Nations called on "all concerned parties to exercise restraint for the sake of regional peace, including by ensuring maritime security" and freedom of navigation, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
The scale of the alleged sabotage also remained unclear. A statement from Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said two of the kingdom's oil tankers, including one due to later carry crude to the U.S., sustained "significant damage." However, a report from Sky News Arabia, a satellite channel owned by an Abu Dhabi ruling family member, showed the allegedly targeted Saudi tanker Al Marzoqah afloat without any apparent damage.
The oil tankers were visible in satellite images provided Tuesday to the AP by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies. A boom surrounded the Emirati oil tanker A. Michel, indicating the possibility of an oil leak. The other three showed no visible major damage from above.
The MT Andrea Victory, the fourth allegedly targeted ship, sustained a hole in its hull just above its waterline from "an unknown object," its owner Thome Ship Management said in a statement. Images on Monday of the Norwegian-flagged Andrea Victory, which the company said was "not in any danger of sinking," showed damage similar to what the firm described.
The U.S. official said each ship sustained a 5- to 10-foot (1.5- to 3-meter) hole in it, near or just below the water line, suspected to have been caused by explosive charges. Emirati officials had requested a team of U.S. military investigators aid them in their probe.
Authorities in Fujairah, also a UAE emirate, also declined to speak to the AP. Emirati officials stopped AP journalists from traveling by boat to see the ships.
The incident raised questions about maritime security in the UAE, home to Dubai's Jebel Ali port, the largest man-made deep-water harbor in the world that is also the U.S. Navy's busiest port of call outside of America. From the coast, AP journalists saw an Emirati coast guard vessel patrolling near the area of one of the Saudi ships in Fujairah, some 130 miles (210 kilometers) northeast of Dubai on the Gulf of Oman.
Fujairah also is about 140 kilometers (85 miles) south of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a third of all oil at sea is traded.
Al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said the attacks on the two Saudi tankers happened at 6 a.m. Sunday. He said "the attack didn't lead to any casualties or oil spill," though he acknowledged it affected "the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world."
It is "the joint responsibility of the international community to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets, and the danger they pose to the global economy," he said, according to the statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
The U.S. Energy Department later said it was "monitoring the oil markets, and is confident they remain well-supplied."
Shortly after the Saudi announcement, Iran's Foreign Ministry called for further clarification about what exactly happened with the vessels. The ministry's spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying there should be more information about the incident.
Mousavi also warned against any "conspiracy orchestrated by ill-wishers" and "adventurism by foreigners" to undermine the maritime region's stability and security. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are staunch opponents of Iran's government.
Asked at the White House about the incident, President Donald Trump responded: "It's going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens."
Tensions have risen since Trump withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and restored U.S. sanctions that have pushed Iran's economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.
European Union officials met Monday in Brussels to thrash out ways to keep the Iran nuclear deal afloat. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had traveled there for talks.
"We're not going to miscalculate. Our aim is not war," Pompeo told CNBC in an interview. "Our aim is a change in the behavior of the Iranian leadership."
Underlining the regional risk, the general-secretary of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council described the incident as a "serious escalation."
"Such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger," Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said. Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen's internationally recognized government similarly condemned the alleged sabotage, as did the Arab League.
The U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the U.S. Transportation Department, warned Thursday that "Iran and/or its regional proxies" could target commercial sea traffic.
The agency issued a new warning Sunday to sailors about the alleged sabotage and urged shippers to exercise caution in the area for the next week.
It remained unclear if the previous warning from the U.S. Maritime Administration is the same perceived threat that prompted the White House on May 4 to order the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and the B-52 bombers to the region. In a statement then, national security adviser John Bolton had warned Iran that "that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force."
Jerusalem, May 14 (AP/UNB) — Israel's government went on a spending binge in its West Bank settlements following the election of President Donald Trump, according to official data obtained by The Associated Press.
Both supporters and detractors of the settlement movement have previously referred to a "Trump effect," claiming the president's friendlier approach to the settlements is leading to additional West Bank construction.
While the new Israeli figures obtained in a freedom of information request do not prove a direct connection, they indicate this process may already be underway, showing a 39% increase in 2017 spending on roads, schools and public buildings across the West Bank.
Hagit Ofran, a researcher with the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now, said it appears that Trump's election has emboldened Israel's pro-settler government.
"They are not shy anymore with what they are doing," she said. "They feel more free to do whatever they want."
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, offered even sharper criticism. "This proves that the current U.S. administration encouraged settlement activities," he said.
Since capturing the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, Israel has settled some 700,000 of its citizens in the two areas, which are considered occupied territory by most of the world. The international community has objected to Israel's moving people into settlements in those territories as both illegal and a deliberate obstacle to any future Palestinian state.
The Palestinians, who claim both the West Bank and east Jerusalem as parts of their future state, consider the settlements illegal land grabs. Scores of fast-growing settlements control strategic hilltops and swaths of the West Bank, making it increasingly difficult to partition the territory.
For decades, the international community and the U.S. have expressed concern over the settlements while doing little to halt their construction. But since taking office, Trump, whose inner circle of Mideast advisers have longstanding ties to the settler movement, has taken a different approach. The White House has urged restraint but refrained from the blanket condemnations of its Republican and Democratic predecessors.
"The Trump administration is undoubtedly the most friendly American administration of all time," said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlers' council. "In contrast, the Obama years were extremely hard for Israel. Now we are making up for lost ground."
The government statistics, released by Israel's Finance Ministry, showed Israeli spending in the West Bank in 2017, Trump's first year in office, rose to 1.65 billion shekels, or $459.8 million, from 1.19 billion shekels in 2016.
The 2017 figures were the highest in the 15 years of data provided by the Finance Ministry, though spending also climbed in 2016. At the time, President Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the settlements, was a lame duck, and relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were cool.
In contrast, the lowest year of Israeli spending was 2009, when both Netanyahu and Obama took office, when it was 760.7 million shekels. The data included only the first half of 2018, so full-year comparisons were not available.
The ministry released the data after two years of requests from the AP, which received backing early this year from "The Movement for Freedom of Information," a legal advocacy group that assists journalists.
The figures include only government spending, so construction and purchases of private homes are not included. Israel also does not include items like police, education, health and military spending, saying such services are provided to all Israelis regardless of where they live.
In addition, spending in east Jerusalem is excluded. Israel considers the area part of its capital, although the vast majority of the world does not recognize its annexation.
But even with these caveats, the data provide a valuable snapshot of Israel's priorities. The figures include spending on public construction projects, such as roads, schools, social centers, synagogues, shopping malls and industrial parks. They also include special development grants for local governments and mortgage subsidies.
The areas with the strongest growth in 2017 were in school construction, which jumped 68%, and road construction, which rose 54%.
Revivi, who is also mayor of the Efrat settlement near Jerusalem, said the spending was badly needed.
He said that school spending was legally required because of the fast-growing population. He also said that roads in the West Bank have been in "dire condition" for years, and there is a drastic need for improvements.
Netivei Yisrael, the public company that oversees road construction, said it carries out its projects at the instruction of the Transportation Ministry. In the West Bank, these projects often allow settlers to bypass Palestinian villages to minimize friction.
In a statement, the company said it is "proud to lead a long line of projects throughout Israel, including Judea and Samaria, with the goal of improving safety for travelers and saving lives."
Israel's Education Minister Naftali Bennett declined to comment, while Transportation Minister Israel Katz did not respond to a query. Both men are strong supporters of the settlements. Netanyahu's office also did not answer a request for comment.
But Peace Now's Ofran said that road construction has deeper implications. She said new roads bring easier commutes and a better quality of life for settlers, drawing more people.
"We see it very immediately, after the opening of a road, a big boom in construction along the road," she said. "I think the investments we have these years in the roads are dramatic and will allow the expansion of settlements dramatically. That is very much worrying."
After winning re-election last month, Netanyahu is in the process of forming a new coalition that also is expected to have close ties with the settlers.
In recent months, both Peace Now and settler advocates have released reports claiming that Trump's policies have laid the groundwork for a settlement boom in the near future.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem repeated the White House policy. "While the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity doesn't help peace," it said.
The new data added to Palestinian distrust of the U.S., boding poorly for a new peace plan the administration says it is preparing.
The Palestinian Authority cut off ties with the White House after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017 and subsequently moved the American Embassy to the contested city. U.S. cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid for the Palestinians have further poisoned the atmosphere.
Claiming the Trump administration is unfairly biased, the Palestinians already have said they will reject any U.S. peace plan.
Abu Rdeneh, the Palestinian spokesman, said the numbers are "another reason why we think that the U.S. plan is unfair."
The Finance Ministry data is collected each year and shared with the U.S., which under a policy going back to President George H.W. Bush deducts the sum from loan guarantees for Israel.
It also includes a small, but unspecified sum spent in the Golan Heights. Just a few thousand Israeli settlers live in the Golan, and Peace Now said the sums spent there were "not significant."