WASHINGTON — President Trump has told his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, according to several administration officials, in a message to his hawkish aides that an intensifying American pressure campaign against the clerical-led government in Tehran must not escalate into open conflict.
Mr. Trump’s statement, during a Wednesday morning meeting in the Situation Room, came during a briefing on the rising tensions with Iran. American intelligence has indicated that Iran has placed missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf, prompting fears that Tehran may strike at United States troops and assets or those of its allies.
No new information was presented to the president at the meeting that argued for further engagement with Iran, according to a person in the room. But Mr. Trump was firm in saying he did not want a military clash with the Iranians, several officials said.
[Iran crisis or “circus”? A weary Middle East wonders.]
On Thursday, Mr. Trump was asked during a visit by the Swiss president, Ueli Maurer, whether the United States was going to war with Iran.
“I hope not,” he replied.
The president has sought to tamp down reports that two of his most hawkish aides — the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are spoiling for a fight with Iran and are running ahead of him in precipitating a military confrontation.
“There is no infighting whatsoever,” Mr. Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday evening. “Different opinions are expressed, and I make a decisive and simple decision — it’s a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered.”
But Mr. Trump added he was confident Iran “will want to talk soon,” signaling an openness to diplomacy that officials said is not shared by Mr. Bolton or Mr. Pompeo.
The president’s professed hopes for a dialogue with Iran seem unlikely to produce a breakthrough any time soon. In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran said there was “no possibility” of discussions with the administration to ease the tensions, Agence France-Presse reported.
“The escalation by the United States is unacceptable,” Mr. Zarif told reporters, according to AFP.
Mr. Pompeo has outlined 12 steps that Iran must take to satisfy the United States — measures that some in the Pentagon view as unrealistic and could back Iranian leaders into a corner. He recently described American policy as being calculated to produce domestic political unrest in Iran.
Mr. Bolton, as a private citizen, long called for regime change in Tehran. He has resisted compromises that would open the door to negotiations with Tehran, has stocked the N.S.C. with Iran hard-liners and has masterminded recent policy changes to tighten the economic and political vise on the country’s leaders.
Mr. Trump is less frustrated with Mr. Bolton over his handling of Iran — he favors the tougher measures as a warning to Tehran — than over the evolving narrative that his national security adviser is leading the administration’s policy in the Middle East, according to three officials.
The president, they said, is well-versed and comfortable with the administration’s recent steps, which have included imposing increasingly onerous sanctions on Iran and designating the military wing of the government, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as a foreign terrorist organization.
Still, the gravity of the Iranian threat has become the subject of a fierce debate among administration officials. Some officials have argued that it did not warrant a dramatic American response, like deploying thousands of troops to the Middle East, or the partial evacuation of the United States Embassy in Baghdad.
The Pentagon last week presented Mr. Trump with options to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East, if Iran attacked American forces or accelerated its work on nuclear weapons. The options were ordered by Mr. Bolton, who has kept an unusually tight grip on the policymaking process for a national security adviser.
Mr. Bolton, officials said, has quietly voiced frustration with the president, viewing him as unwilling to push for changes in a region that he has long seen as a quagmire. That, in turn, has led people in the White House to view Mr. Bolton with deepening skepticism, with some questioning whether his job is in trouble.
Mr. Trump also is impatient with another of Mr. Bolton’s major campaigns: the effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. After the opposition’s failed attempt to peel away key Maduro allies and turn the Venezuelan military against him, Mr. Maduro appears harder to dislodge than ever.