Trump’s National Security Aides to Meet on Possible Iran Options

WASHINGTON — Senior national security officials from across the government are scheduled to meet Thursday to refine a list of potential targets to strike in Iran, should President Trump order a military retaliation for missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil fields last weekend, officials said.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to present the updated options to Mr. Trump at a National Security Council meeting scheduled for Friday, a senior American official said.

In advance of being presented with the newest set of options, Mr. Trump has sent different signals on his intentions. He has threatened to order “the ultimate option” of a strike on Iran to punish the nation for its behavior, but also has made clear his continued opposition to ordering the United States into another war in the Middle East.

The Pentagon is advocating military strikes that one senior official described as at the lower end of options. The official said that any retaliation could focus on more clandestine operations — actions that military planners predict would not prompt an escalation by Iran.

These kinds of targets could include the sites where Iran launches cruise missiles and drones, and where the weaponry is stored. Under this scenario, the military option would include a diplomatic outreach campaign at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week to muster support for the additional sanctions that Mr. Trump has ordered and other nonmilitary steps. Mr. Trump has said new sanctions against Iran will be put in place. A range of covert cyberoperations is also being discussed.

[A military strike against Iran would result in “an all-out war,” Iran’s foreign minister said Thursday.]

It remains unclear, though, whether the United States and Saudi Arabia could muster strong support at the United Nations, since the Saudis have been criticized for waging a war in Yemen that has caused civilian casualties and since Mr. Trump has faced strong criticism for pulling the United States out of a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran.

But the senior American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, warned that Mr. Trump would also be presented with other options that are stronger, options that would require dispatching more forces to the Persian Gulf region.

The official offered no details on those targets, but presumably they could include Iranian oil facilities or targets involving Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Mr. Trump’s contradictory statements on Wednesday left senior Defense Department and military officers guessing about which course of action the president would choose.

Several issues might delay any immediate military action, officials said. First, Saudi Arabia is said to fear that any military response could rapidly escalate and lead to further attacks against the kingdom and its vulnerable oil facilities.

Another issue is that American military forensic specialists have only arrived in the past couple of days at the site of the attacks in Saudi Arabia. Their analysis of circuit boards recovered from one of the cruise missiles — which could provide valuable clues about the missile’s trajectory and flight path — is still underway. That information could be important to making a case as to who is responsible for the attacks.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that Mr. Trump was seeking a peaceful route. “We’d like a peaceful resolution indeed,” he told reporters in the United Arab Emirates before ending a two-day trip to the Gulf region. “We’re still striving to build out a coalition. I was here in an act of diplomacy while the foreign minister of Iran is threatening all-out war to fight to the last American. We’re here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution.”

Mr. Pompeo said the United States planned to impose more sanctions on Iran, as Mr. Trump had announced on Wednesday. “We have set about a course of action to deny Iran the capacity and the wealth to prevent them from conducting their terror campaigns,” he said. “And you can see from the events of last week there’s more work to do.”

European nations, which have been trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, have been cautious in their response to the attack in Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, the French government announced that President Emmanuel Macron promised in a telephone call the previous day with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that French experts would go to Saudi Arabia to assist in the investigation, at the request of the Saudis.

Along with France, Germany and Britain, China and Russia also entered into the 2015 agreement with Iran. All five nations, four of which are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have criticized the Trump administration for withdrawing from the agreement. And China in particular has chafed at the sanctions on Iranian oil imposed by Washington.

American officials have not yet laid out the case against Iran and the recommendations they intend to present at the United Nations General Assembly meeting next week.

“I’m confident that in New York we’ll talk a lot about this and that the Saudis will too,” Mr. Pompeo said on Wednesday. “The Saudis were the nation that was attacked. It was on their soil. It was an act of war against them directly, and I’m confident they will do that.”

That indicates there could be a period of discussion among international leaders before Washington proceeds with any strong actions.