AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Iran and threat and war - three words you've been hearing a lot in recent days, usually in the same sentence. Last week, citing concerns, intelligence reports, the administration sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Yesterday, also citing security concerns, the State Department ordered nonessential personnel to leave the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. And this morning, at the White House, the president was asked of the prospect of war with Iran, and he said, quote, "I hope not."
Michael Anton was a national security spokesman for the Trump administration. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL ANTON: Hello. Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Multiple news reports have suggested that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton may be pushing the administration towards a war with Iran, and it's a concern being echoed by members of Congress. Do you believe that's the case?
ANTON: I doubt it. But it - remember, they have a boss. The boss is the president, and the president said yesterday, and he repeated it today, that he doesn't want war with Iran, and he's not seeking war with Iran. So...
CORNISH: And yet, you've had John Bolton out there in the past using the phrase, regime change.
ANTON: We have, but we've also heard John Bolton say, many times since he took over as national security adviser, that his previously expressed opinions were his own, and they don't matter; that he is now a public servant serving a president, and his job is to carry out orders. So if he's...
CORNISH: Do they matter if Iran hears them? I mean, it's...
ANTON: It matters what the President orders his administration to do and that they carry out his orders, as I expect absolutely everyone will, and if - anyone who doesn't, I expect will be fired.
CORNISH: There are also multiple news reports, including NPR's, documenting concern at many levels at the Pentagon, people saying that the administration isn't fully grasping the risk of the current moment.
ANTON: Well, look - I haven't seen the intelligence; none of us have. I will say, though, it's telling that the United States is not the only country taking protective measures right now. Other countries have asked their diplomats to leave facilities that they feel are under threat. So the intelligence seems to be widely shared among allies and widely of concern. I think what we're seeing here is simply precautions, and they are very specifically precautions meant to avoid greater conflict.
The Iranian regime is particularly cautious. It likes to probe defenses and see what it can get away with. And when it finds a united front, when it finds vigilance among its adversaries, it tends to mind its own business and not do anything provocative. And that's the outcome I think the administration seeking right now.
CORNISH: In the meantime, European allies have expressed skepticism about the current rhetoric, even how the U.S. is interpreting intelligence reports about Iranian activity. What's your response to that?
ANTON: That's nothing new, but - although I would say, as I said a moment ago, some of the countries that have ordered some of their own diplomatic personnel to leave the region because of an increased threat are in fact European countries. It's only natural that country to - countries may disagree about the level of intelligence or how to interpret the intelligence, but clearly some countries agree. And whether we all agree on what the intelligence says or not, again, what the administration is doing is just taking precautions in order to avoid conflict. I think that's wise, and I hope the outcome we all seek, which is to avoid conflict, is the - in fact the outcome.
CORNISH: This president campaigned on the idea that the Iraq war was a mistake, that the U.S. should steer clear of protracted conflicts. What's your response to say that he is escalating tensions?
ANTON: I don't think he is escalating tensions; I think he's responding with strength to a threat that we perceive, precisely in order to ratchet tensions down. What we have seen the American experience with Iran over the past 40 years, since the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, is that when and where Iran sees either weakness and-or a lack of vigilance - America not paying attention - it tends to try to exploit what it sees as gaps. When it sees that we are being strong, that we are being vigilant, that we're not leaving them opportunities to harm our interests, it tends to back down and turn its attentions elsewhere.
So it's the right thing to do, to put up a united front, to put up a strong front in order to convince the Iranian regime not to ratchet up tensions or try anything dangerous or attack U.S. interests or allied interests. That's the way you avoid conflict with Iran.
CORNISH: Michael Anton was a spokesman for the National Security Council for President Trump. He's now a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College. Thank you for speaking with us.
ANTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.