Fire and smoke billow from Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker after an explosion in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019

Donald Trump apparently steps back from confrontation with Iran, saying last week’s attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman were “very minor” — putting him at odds with US agencies and legislators.

In an interview in Time magazine, Trump said of last Thursday’s explosions that damaged the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous and Norwegian-owned Front Altair — and of other attacks such as last month’s sabotage of four ships, including two Saudi tankers, in a UAE port: “So far, it’s been very minor.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the American military have blamed Iran for the incidents. On Sunday, Pompeo said in a TV interview that the Trump Administration is considering a “full range of options”, including military action.

In a Monday announcement of the deployment of another 1,000 US troops to the region, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said:

The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region.

The motive for Trump’s differing perspective is unclear. He said that he would “certainly” go to war to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but asked whether he would respond to attacks on oil tankers, he said, “I would keep the other a question mark.”

Trump supported the 2003 war against Iraq but, during the campaign and as President, claimed that he opposed the US intervention as an unnecessary conflict over oil.

In the Time interview, Trump agreed with the US intelligence community’s assessment of Iranian responsibility, but he said Tehran is becoming less hostile towards the US.

If you look at the rhetoric now compared to the days when they were signing that [2015 nuclear] agreement, where it was always “Death to America, Death to America, we will destroy America, we will kill America”, I’m not hearing that too much anymore. And I don’t expect to.

Pushback from Legislators and Secretary of State Pompeo

Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill challenged the assessment of “very minor” attacks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “He sure didn’t suggest that to me Sunday. He was very upset about where Iran’s going. You can’t have provocative acts by rogue regimes go unanswered.”

Graham called for the US to “cripple” Tehran’s capability by “attacking naval forces that have been the chief military force against tankers and our vessels” and supported the “blowing up” of Iranian oil refineries that are “the lifeblood of their economies”.

And while proclaiming, “President Trump does not want war”, Secretary of State Pompeo said, “Forty years of Iranian activity…has led us to this point….We shouldn’t focus on just those two attacks.”

That contrasted with Trump’s dismissal of the strategic importance of the Gulf of Oman and of the nearby Strait of Hormuz, through which 1/6 of the world’s oil passes.

Other places get such vast amounts of oil there. We get very little. We have made tremendous progress in the last two and a half years in energy….So we’re not in the position that we used to be in the Middle East where…some people would say we were there for the oil.