Mr Trump has swung like a pendulum on Tehran since he withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago. At times he has warned Iran of “severe consequences” if it threatened the US. But he has also suggested that he wanted to meet the Iranian leadership to negotiate a deal, before saying the time was not right.
“I genuinely believe the president hopes that his approach of maximum pressure will lead to talks but . . . the policy that he has approved may lead to the war that he doesn’t want,” said Robert Malley, a Middle East expert who heads the International Crisis Group.
Mr Trump hopes economic sanctions will force the Iranian regime to the negotiating table but with an increasingly weak bargaining position.
However, there are divisions within the administration and mixed views among experts about whether the policy will reduce tensions with Iran. These have been mounting since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago and escalated dramatically recently with a series of attacks on ships in the Gulf that the US has blamed on Iran.
Trita Parsi, author of the book Losing an Enemy about the Obama administration deal with Iran, said Mr Trump had little interest in military action, but was being misled by John Bolton, national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, secretary of state. “The advisers are giving him advice that he believes is an effective way of getting to the [negotiating] table, but they know is an effective way of ensuring it escalates into a military confrontation.”
Both men have denied that the US policy is regime change. Mr Pompeo last year outlined 12 conditions for any deal with Iran, ranging from measures related to its nuclear and missile activities to ceasing support for terrorist groups.
Bill Burns, head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served as deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, said the Trump team were less interested in pursuing a better nuclear deal and more interested in “capitulation across a range of issues, or the regime’s implosion”.
“I don’t think either of those goals are realistic, so we are left with a situation where hardliners in both capitals become mutually enablers and get into a situation that can escalate quickly,” said Mr Burns.
The White House counters that Mr Obama was not tough enough on Iran. It argues that the nuclear deal was flawed and did not deal with what the Trump administration describes as Iran’s other malign activities, including its support for regional militias and its ballistic missile programme.
“If the maximum pressure campaign doesn’t get them to the table . . . at least it would constrain their resources to the point that they would have fewer options for engaging in the kind of behaviour that we find so problematic,” said one senior administration official.
Some critics argue that Mr Trump has failed to back up his hardline approach on Iran with the kind of diplomacy that was applied in tandem with its economic pressure on North Korea. And while Mr Trump has tweeted on occasion about wanting to talk to Iran’s leaders, there has been little outreach to make that a reality.
“He started off on a more aggressive path with the North Koreans in 2017, with ‘fire and fury’ but once he came to realise that it could lead to dangerous terrain he was willing to couple it with the other part of the equation (diplomacy),” said Mr Burns. “But on Iran, that is the kind of missing ingredient.”
The US official responded that Iran was to blame for the lack of high-level engagement, saying its leaders had not been willing to follow in the same steps as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. “It would be my hope that at some point the Iranian regime decides to take advantage of that opportunity for dialogue, but they’re not there yet.”
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said that while Mr Trump “favours some kind of high-level interaction with the Iranians”, the jury was out on his maximum pressure strategy. “There is a bit of North Korea and a bit of Venezuela (in Iran policy) but they are obviously strategies that haven’t produced results.”
William Fallon, a retired admiral who headed US Central Command during the Bush administration at a time when there were concerns about military conflict with Iran, said it was unclear that the Trump administration had a strategy to deal with the situation.
“I doubt that ‘maximum pressure’ is going to magically turn these guys around. That is just a tactic. The question is, what’s the strategy?” Mr Fallon said. “Where does it go from here? The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the ultimate risk taking organisation in the Iranian hierarchy. You have to be prepared for the unexpected.”
With the possibility of high-level diplomacy looking remote, the question is how the US will counter what it says are Iranian attacks on tankers in the Middle East. Anthony Zinni, another former head of Central Command, who recently served as an envoy for the Trump administration, said he worried about the crisis escalating into conflict.
“When I took over Central Command, my biggest worry was that the IRGC navy would bump our ships,” said Mr Zinni. “It just takes one US navy captain to say that’s too much of a threat and to open up and it escalates from there.”
Mr Fallon said the US had seen periods in which the IRGC had taken provocative actions at sea that provoked warnings from the US, but that the current situation was potentially more explosive.
“It happened several times and the IRGC backed off. We go through these cycles. But there is probably bigger motivation here as Iran is looking for ways to counter US and Saudi pressure. Adding weapons (mines) to the rhetoric is a dangerous escalation”.
Another former senior military commander said the US strategy was working in the sense that it had gotten Iran’s attention and “dealt considerable blows to its economy”. But he said the consequences were “concerning” if you considered the “multiple undoubtedly Iranian attacks on the vessels, numerous drone attacks by Houthis armed by Iran from Yemen on Saudi Arabia, and a resumption of Iranian uranium enrichment”.
“This obviously can spiral downward, as the US at some point will have to respond, and an escalation of violence could result,” said the former commander. “Iran is heading on a very dangerous course”.
Follow Demetri on Twitter: @dimi