On a warm night in early September, militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s sprawling diplomatic quarter, home to the US Embassy.
The shells—launched by a group aligned with Iran—landed in an open lot, harming no one. But they triggered unusual alarm in Washington, where President Trump’s national security team conducted a series of meetings to discuss a forceful American response.
The request, which hasn’t been previously reported, generated concern at the Pentagon and State Department, current and former US officials say.
“It definitely rattled people,” said one former senior US administration official. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
The Pentagon complied with the National Security Council’s request to develop options for striking Iran, the officials said. But it isn’t clear if the proposals were provided to the White House, whether Mr Trump knew of the request or whether serious plans for a US strike against Iran took shape at that time.
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the body “coordinates policy and provides the president with options to anticipate and respond to a variety of threats.”
“We continue to review the status of our personnel following attempted attacks on our embassy in Baghdad and our Basra consulate, and we will consider a full range of options to preserve their safety and our interests,” he said.
Mr Bolton’s request reflects the administration’s more confrontational approach toward Tehran, one that he has pushed since taking up the post last April.
As national security adviser, Mr Bolton is charged with providing a range of diplomatic, military and economic advice to the president.
Former US officials said it was unnerving that the National Security Council asked for far-reaching military options to strike Iran in response to attacks that caused little damage and no injuries.
Last year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis argued against strikes that might hit Russian and Iranian forces when Mr Trump and his national security team were looking at ways to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a chemical-weapons attack, according to people familiar with the debate. Mr Mattis, who resigned last month amid a dispute with Mr Trump over the president’s national security decisions, pushed for a more modest response that Mr Trump eventually embraced.
In talks with other administration officials, Mr Bolton has made it clear that he personally supports regime change in Iran, a position he aggressively championed before joining the Trump administration, according to people familiar with the discussions.
As a think-tank scholar and Fox News commentator, Mr Bolton repeatedly urged the US to attack Iran, including in a 2015 New York Times op-edtitled, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”
After taking the White House post, Mr Bolton joined forces with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to develop a more aggressive policy aimed at weakening the government in Tehran. Mr Bolton has said that his job is to implement the president’s agenda, which doesn’t include regime change in Tehran. The State Department declined to comment.
Mr Bolton worked last year to quickly pull the US out of former President Barack Obama’s nuclear-containment deal with the country and to tighten economic sanctions on Tehran, moves eagerly sought by Mr Trump. In a September speech, Mr Bolton warned Tehran that there would be “hell to pay” if Iran threatened America or its allies.
Mr Bolton and his deputy at the time, Mira Ricardel, were pressing for new ways to confront Iran militarily.
The September 6 mortar attack in Baghdad generated little news coverage. The city’s Green Zone has been a frequent target for insurgents since the US invasion in 2003. A Shiite militia group aligned with Iran eventually claimed responsibility for the attack.
Two days later, amid anti-Iranian protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, unknown militants fired three rockets that hit relatively close to the American consulate, but caused no serious damage.
No one claimed responsibility for the second attack, but White House officials decided they needed to send a clear message to Iran.
Alongside the requests in regards to Iran, the National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with options to respond with strikes in Iraq and Syria as well, according to people familiar with the talks.
In one meeting, Ms Ricardel described the attacks in Iraq as “an act of war” and said the US had to respond decisively, according to one person familiar with the meeting.
Ms Ricardel, who was forced out of her job in November after a feud with first lady Melania Trump, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Current and former US officials said there have been discussions about her taking a new job at the Pentagon.
As the administration discussed the US response last fall, the White House issued a two-paragraph statement on Sept. 11 that seemed to warn of a possible military strike.
“The United States will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to United States government facilities,” the White House said.
Two weeks later, Mr Pompeo made it clear the US was willing to target Iran for the actions of its allies in Iraq.
“Iran will be held accountable for those incidents,” he said in a September 21 CNN interview.
“Even militarily?” asked CNN’s Elise Labott.
“They’re going to be held accountable,” Mr. Pompeo replied. “If they’re responsible for the arming and training of these militias, we’re going to go to the source.”
The Trump administration has kept up the public threats. Earlier this month, Mr Pompeo again warned Tehran when it announced plans to launch two satellites into space, a move the Trump administration said would help the country advance its missile-launching abilities.
“We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security,” Mr Pompeo said in a tweet on January 3.
During a trip to Israel earlier this month, Mr Bolton suggested that Mr Trump was willing to strike Iran if he thought Tehran was close to developing a nuclear weapon.
“The president looks at all his options constantly,” Mr Bolton said in an interview with talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt that aired on Friday. “On a subject of this seriousness, this is something we coordinate very closely with Israel on, but for reasons I’m sure you can understand, we have to keep our cards close to the vest.”