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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Of all the disagreements that drove President Trump and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis apart, one of the most perilous had to do with blowing up Iranian boats. "Why don't we sink them?" the president would ask.

Acting on an obsession that went back to the campaign, Trump repeatedly asked his national security team for plans to blow up Iranian "fast boats" in the Persian Gulf during the first year of his presidency, according to two sources who directly heard Trump's requests and three other former senior officials briefed on them.

  • Trump appeared incredulous that the U.S. military hadn't sunk these small Iranian attack boats, and he viewed it as a humiliation and sign of weakness.
  • "So these boats, they get in, they come in really fast, they come in really close ... and they might have explosives on them and we don't even know," Trump said, repeatedly, in the recollection of a source who heard the president directly in the Oval Office.
  • "Can you believe this? And we don't do anything?"

There was just one problem: Iran's "fast boats" were harassing U.S. navy vessels less than in previous years. Such a disproportionate response from Trump could have quickly metastasized into war with Iran, these sources said.

The U.S. previously responded to Iranian naval provocations by attacking their ships and speedboats during the end of the Iran-Iraq War in the late 1980s.

  • Over the years since, Iran has persistently used its small attack boats, armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, to harass U.S. Navy vessels.
  • At times the confrontations in the Persian Gulf have become so testy that the U.S. vessels fired off warning shots.

Why it matters: The episode, first referenced last year by the Washington Post, shows Trump's often-contradictory national security impulses. While Trump has been eager to withdraw U.S. troops from their stations in the Middle East and Asia, he's also, at times, proposed military actions that could draw the U.S. further in.

  • We have seen this pattern throughout Trump's term. For example, he launched strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria before announcing he was withdrawing U.S. troops from the region. He threatened apocalyptic war with North Korea — telling Kim Jong-un that there'd be "fire and fury" if he kept threatening America — and has at other times flirted with withdrawing all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

Mattis, who took pride in resisting Trump's errant instincts, never provided the plans to blow up the Iranian fast boats, according to three former officials involved in the deliberations. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster had to try to pacify the boss.

  • While receiving the President's Daily Brief — on multiple occasions, and in at least one separate Oval Office meeting — Trump chastised McMaster about it.
  • A source who observed the exchange said McMaster replied: "Mr. President, this has happened in the past, but DOD [Department of Defense] is telling us it hasn't happened lately. ... So they're not that concerned about it."
  • Trump persisted: "OK, but if it happens again, what would we do?"
  • McMaster replied: "We've got them [DOD] looking at options."

As his presidency wore on, Trump became less interested in the boats.

  • That's probably because Iran stopped the "fast boat" harassment during the first summer Trump was in office, according to the U.S. Navy.
  • This change in Iranian behavior ultimately became a point of pride for the president.

The bottom line: Close observers of the Iranian military caution against reading too much into this narrow retreat from Tehran.

  • "From mid-2017 to mid-2018, it's likely that the Iranians were worried about the prospects of escalation with the U.S. in the Persian Gulf. More worried than perhaps any other time since the end of the Iran-Iraq War," says Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
  • "But caution should not be mistaken for a change in Iran's asymmetric naval doctrine, capabilities or intentions. As always, Iran plays the long game."
  • "Just because Iran's naval harassment numbers have dropped, does not mean it hasn't found another medium to use, like drones, to signal resolve against the U.S."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

3 hours ago - World

In photos: Protests in U.S., across the world over Israeli–Palestinian conflict

A protest march in support of Palestinians near the Washington monument in Washington, D.C. on May 15. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of people rallied across the U.S. and the world Saturday following days of violence in Gaza and Israel that's killed at least 145 Palestinians, including 41 children, and eight Israelis, per AP.

The big picture: Most demonstrations were in support of Palestinians. There were tense scenes between pro-Israeli government protesters and pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Winnipeg, Canada, and Leipzig, Germany, but no arrests were made, CBS News and DW.com report.

Updated 11 hours ago - World

Biden in call with Netanyahu raises concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday and raised concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and the bombing of the building that housed AP and other media offices, according to Israeli officials.

The big picture: At least 140 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed in Gaza since fighting between Israel and Hamas began Monday, according to Palestinian health officials. Nine people, including two children, have been killed by Hamas rockets in Israel.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

"Horrified": AP, Al Jazeera condemn Israel's bombing of their offices in Gaza

A ball of fire erupts from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Associated Press and Al Jazeera on Saturday condemned the Israeli airstrike that destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza that housed their and other media offices.

What they're saying: The White House, meanwhile, said it had "communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," according to press secretary Jen Psaki.

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