The U.S. is “not looking for regime change” in Iran, President Trump said Monday, distancing himself from the more bellicose views of some of his advisors amid a period of rising tensions.
In recent weeks, the administration has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the waters near Iran, ordered 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East and tightened economic sanctions, prompting many Democrats — as well as U.S. allies in Europe and Asia — to fear that the two nations are heading toward combat.
Trump, however, took a more conciliatory tone during a news conference here with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, downplaying tensions with both Iran and North Korea.
“These are great people — has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership,” he said of Iran. “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
That’s a considerably more modest goal than top administration officials have suggested.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, for example, has laid out a far-reaching case against Iran in a series of speeches over the last year. In the first, just over a year ago, he described Iran in uncompromising terms as a security threat and vowed an all-out campaign of economic sanctions that would leave the country “battling to keep its economy alive.”
National security advisor John Bolton has long advocated regime change in Iran. In 2015, as he campaigned against the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Tehran, he wrote that “the real solution to the ayatollahs’ nuclear weapons program is to get rid of the ayatollahs.”
Trump has periodically pushed back against his aides’ saber rattling toward Iran. Whether his comments reflect a true difference in views or just one of rhetorical emphasis has been the subject of intense speculation in Washington and elsewhere.
Since he was a candidate, Trump has often denounced U.S. policies that led to wars in the Middle East, and he has advocated pulling U.S. troops out of conflict zones in Syria and Afghanistan. But he has surrounded himself with hard-line advisors who supported those past military efforts.
The goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons more closely resembles the Obama administration’s policy toward Tehran. Just over a year ago, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal that Obama approved, which he harshly denounced.
At Monday’s news conference, he criticized former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, for supporting that deal.
And he refused to back down from an inflammatory tweet he posted Sunday after arriving in Japan in which he sided with an official North Korean statement that called Biden “a fool of low IQ.”
“Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual,” Trump said, referring to the North Korean leader. “He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that.”
Trump had already broken with American diplomatic tradition when he publicly sided with a hostile foreign government against a political rival, tweeting that he “smiled” when Kim “called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?”
By repeating that view during an official news conference with Abe in a Japanese palace, Trump almost certainly will have added to the political controversy.
Trump’s comments about Biden and North Korea threatened to overshadow what was supposed to be mostly a goodwill trip here to celebrate the close relationship between Japan and the United States.
He completed the trip hours later, delivering a Memorial Day speech to sailors and Marines aboard the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, before leaving to return to Washington.
Some service members wore patches on their uniforms with the words Make Aircrew Great Again circling an image of Trump.
The Japanese are apprehensive about Trump’s efforts to flatter Kim in hopes of reaching a diplomatic deal to disarm. Japan sits close to its hostile neighbor and its burgeoning nuclear program.
While attempting to court Kim with his positive rhetoric, Trump has also ordered his administration to refrain from imposing sanctions intended to further isolate Kim. Critics of Trump’s diplomatic efforts have long warned that North Korea is simply buying time and will not denuclearize.
In the news conference, Trump made the case that Iran and North Korea both show “tremendous” economic potential that could be realized if they give up their nuclear weapons.
“Kim Jong Un understands the unbelievable economic potential that country has,” Trump said.
North Korea has “a great location as we used to say in the real estate business,” he said, drawing a laugh from Bolton, who was sitting in the front row.
Trump said he does not think Kim violated United Nations resolutions by testing short-range missiles earlier this month — directly contradicting Bolton, who told reporters that there was “no doubt” the tests had been a violation.
“My people think it could have been a violation, as you know,” Trump said.
“I view it differently,” Trump added. “I view it as a man perhaps who wants to get attention. I think that someday we’ll have a deal. I’m not in a rush — tremendous sanctions being put on the country of North Korea.”
“All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests, there have been no ballistic missiles going out, no long-range missiles going out,” Trump said.
That consistent administration emphasis on “long-range missiles” capable of hitting the U.S. is part of what has disturbed the Japanese, who are within range of North Korea’s shorter-range missiles.
When Trump says “the only DPRK missile tests that matter are ICBMs, we are decoupling” the U.S. from its allies in South Korea and Japan, Victor Cha, a Georgetown University specialist on Korea, wrote on Twitter, using the initialism for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Cha was slated to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea, but was dropped early in 2018 because of policy differences with the administration.
Abe, who stood beside Trump, reiterated his belief that Kim had violated the U.N. resolutions. He called the missile tests this month a “great regret” and reminded Trump that “we are most threatened” by North Korean military capabilities.
The Japanese prime minister again said he would like to meet directly with Kim to resolve the longstanding issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted by the North Korean government decades ago. Trump and Abe met with a group of relatives of the abductees before the news conference.
On another point of tension with Japan, Trump said that a new trade agreement between the two countries would have to wait at least until August, after Japan’s scheduled parliamentary elections. And he did not make any specific commitments when asked about lifting tariffs that he has imposed on Japan and other U.S. allies.
But Abe said he wanted to “pay tribute” to Trump’s diplomatic efforts, insisting the two countries are collaborating closely.
“He cracked open the shell of distrust,” Abe said. “This was a new approach which I welcome.”