The United States must not start a military conflict with Iran.

Saber rattling by President Donald Trump’s administration and deployment of a carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf are unsettling.

Normally, this might be considered wise, as a deterrent. Iran, struggling under economic sanctions since the U.S. withdrew from its nuclear agreement last May, is threatening again to block the critical Strait of Hormuz. U.S. intelligence also reportedly caught wind of Iran planning to attack U.S. forces in the region.

But this isn’t a normal presidency. Even smart moves by Trump are questioned because of his erratic approach to governance and frequent disregard for facts, rules and standards. Especially after declaring a faux military crisis at the Mexico border, while shrugging off proof of Russian attacks on the U.S. election, the president has squandered credibility necessary to intervene overseas.

Despite tough talk, war with Iran is unlikely, said Seth Weinberger, politics professor at the University of Puget Sound: “In both countries when leaders are in trouble they like to stir things up internationally as a way of distracting.”

But heightened tension and military activity increase the risk of accidents and mistakes that could spiral.

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“If we get in a shooting conflict, even a small one with the Iranians in the Persian Gulf, the chances of that escalating are significant,” retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey said last week.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat chairing the House Armed Services Committee, rightly urged the administration to be cautious and consider options including “diplomacy with a path forward to de-escalation.”

Congress has few options to prevent a war in Iran.

Democrats have proposed bills requiring congressional authorization for military operations against Iran, with exceptions such as an imminent threat. Smith supports the approach but acknowledges presidents historically are able to do what they want militarily. Still, he hopes to insert a measure preventing war with Iran into the defense budget later this year.

While Trump has railed against Iran, he pledged during his campaign to pull back from the Middle East and touted his opposition to the Iraq war. Then he appointed a hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who has advocated for regime change in Iran and appears to be dialing up tension. Bolton announced a week ago that a carrier strike group was being deployed in “response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications,” even though the Navy a month earlier said this was a “regularly scheduled deployment.”

The public is getting mixed messages, or seeing a frightening rift in the White House. After Bolton’s announcement, and a Dick Cheney-esque Iran huddle Bolton convened at the CIA last Monday that NBC reported, Trump tried to turn down the heat. On Thursday, Trump said he “tempers” Bolton, expressed sympathy for Iran’s internal struggles and said he looks forward to the day the U.S. can help the country.

“We’re not looking to hurt Iran. I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy,” Trump said, an unexpected but timely flash of statesmanship.

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Is this good cop, bad cop, or a president reining in an adviser on the warpath?

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Even those who despise Trump must wish for his success in the latter role − and hope he told the truth when promising to show restraint as president.

” … Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” Trump said in his pivotal “America First” speech in 2016. “You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength.”

The president’s bombastic, mercurial approach to foreign relations doesn’t build confidence and damages alliances. But that pales next to the death, havoc and instability that would result from war with Iran. Trump must live up to his words and prevent such a cataclysm.