By Dion Nissenbaum, Benoit Faucon and Felicia Schwartz
With open hostilities between Iran and the U.S. subsiding for now, the Trump administration is seeking to keep pressure on Iran without pushing the region into a volatile new confrontation, U.S. and regional officials said.
U.S. officials said they are increasingly confident Iran and its Mideast allies are looking to avoid a head-on fight with America, even as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered a firebrand message during prayers on Friday in Tehran.
Key members of President Trump's national-security team view Tehran as weakened by the confrontation and struggling to regain its footing domestically after its military mistakenly shot down a commercial airliner in Iran, triggering days of protests across the country following its admission of the missile strike that killed 176 people.
Senior U.S. officials are urging Mr. Trump to stand firm, keep imposing economic sanctions and wait to see if European leaders move to reimpose United Nations sanctions on Iran for violating a nuclear-containment deal.
Some of those who backed the decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 argue that continuing to squeeze Iran could weaken the government or even bring about a collapse in the near to short term, officials involved in the discussions said.
Trump administration officials say they aren't seeking regime change, just a dramatic shift in Tehran's approach to military and foreign affairs. But some U.S. officials also believe a collapse could pave the way for a more moderate government.
"The combination of maximum economic pressure and restoring deterrence by credible threat of military force, if attacked, is going to do more to advance peace and stability in the region than a policy of accommodation with the regime," said Brian Hook, who oversees Trump administration policy toward Iran at the State Department.
Other administration officials, including some who harbored misgivings about the strike on Mr. Soleimani, believe that direct, back-channel talks between Tehran and Washington would be a more effective way to avert open conflict. Those officials appear to be in the minority.
Mr. Trump has offered to take part in direct talks -- as he has with North Korea -- and said he is willing to listen to anyone who can help make that happen, but Iran has refused to come to the table unless the U.S. eases some sanctions.
For now, administration officials believe the Iranians don't have immediate plans to attack U.S. forces or diplomats.
"It seems that everyone is standing down," a senior U.S. administration official said. "The question now is what can we do to advance the president's agenda?"
Meanwhile, U.S. allies in the Middle East are recalibrating policies, with Israel urging continued U.S. military pressure against Iran's allies in the region and Arab Gulf states urging the U.S. to de-escalate the military confrontation with Iran.
Twice this month, U.S. officials said, Mr. Trump has talked by phone with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar with close ties to Tehran. Sheikh Tamim offered to serve as a mediator between Washington and Tehran in hopes of averting a dangerous conflict, current and former U.S. officials briefed on the calls said.
But many Trump administration officials are skeptical that Qatar's mediation efforts would be more successful than those of France, Japan, Oman or Pakistan, all of which failed to secure a diplomatic breakthrough.
"Qatar is engaging busily and at high levels, of its own accord and without a mandate," one U.S. official said.
The White House has disclosed just one of the two calls.
Saudi Arabia also sent its vice defense minister, Prince Khaled bin Salman, to Washington, where he urged Mr. Trump to look for ways to avoid a regional war.
Saudi officials were concerned that Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen might, at Tehran's urging, step up their attacks on the neighboring kingdom, which has reduced cross-border attacks and laid the groundwork for a potential peace deal.
Those fears were realized over the weekend when Houthi forces launched a missile strike that killed at least 60 Yemeni troops backed by the Saudi government. The attack comes amid a sharp uptick in clashes that threatens to undermine fragile peace talks.
While Qatar and other Arab nations are trying to defuse tensions, Israel appears to be resuming its airstrikes on Iranian forces aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As Sheikh Tamim launched his back-channel diplomatic campaign, a suspected Israeli airstrike killed three people at a Syrian base used by Iranian forces and their allies. Last week's strike sent a message that Tehran would continue to face military pressure.
Much of the U.S. focus following the airstrike in Baghdad that killed Gen. Suleimani has been on containing the damage in Iraq, where lawmakers pushed through a nonbinding measure calling for America to withdraw all its troops.
American allies around the region have been heartened by Mr. Trump's rejection of the demands, which led Iraq's caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to temper his calls for a U.S. troop pullout. Now he is allowing the next government to decide, a victory for Washington and its allies who want to limit Iranian influence.
"The most important consideration here is that Iraq is not absorbed into a Shiite axis led by Iran," said Dore Gold, a former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who is now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
That is also why Qatar and other Arab allies of the U.S. are focusing their efforts on defusing tensions in Iraq.
"We are also emphasizing that Iraq should not turn into an arena for regional or international conflicts and, due to Qatar's geopolitical positioning, the different stakeholders are placing many hopes on these efforts of the Qatari diplomacy," a Qatari diplomat said.
Iranian officials said mediation can't succeed without the U.S. providing sanctions relief.
"It does not matter what channel we use; the main obstacle is on the other side of the Atlantic," an Iranian diplomat said.
--Summer Said contributed to this article.
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org, Benoit Faucon at email@example.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 20, 2020 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
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