Still, Mr. Trump voices support for the “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions on Iran that Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton have pushed. On Friday, Mr. Trump said on Twitter: “Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
No officials could point to any new sanctions, though the president said on Saturday that he planned to impose “major” additional sanctions on Monday. And Mr. Trump has never addressed the common argument that the reimposition of crippling sanctions last year is what has pushed Iran to lash out. Iran had spent a year working with European nations to try to contain the damage from Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear containment deal that major world powers support.
In the Situation Room on Thursday, Mr. Pompeo argued that in addition to launching a strike, the administration should continue the sanctions campaign and let the recent cut in oil revenues sink in, according to an official familiar with the debate.
“Of all the top administration officials, I think Pompeo is the most secure and also the best at channeling Trump,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who advises Trump administration officials and advocates sanctions on Iran.
But Mr. Pompeo’s militant stand on Iran has led some prominent Trump supporters to push for his ouster because of what they see as a betrayal of Mr. Trump’s “America First” isolationism. On Thursday night, after Mr. Trump called off the strike, Douglas Macgregor, a retired army colonel, told Fox News that Mr. Trump “needs to get rid of the warmongers. He needs to throw these geniuses that want limited strikes out of the Oval Office.”
Mr. Trump has said he reins in Mr. Bolton, but has never mentioned doing the same with Mr. Pompeo.
If staying in Trump’s good graces is one guiding star for Mr. Pompeo, another is his religion. He has been open about the influence of Christian theology on his policies, especially those involving the Middle East.
A telling moment came in March when Mr. Pompeo visited Jerusalem, where he spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the threat that Iran poses to Israel. An interviewer from the Christian Broadcasting Network posed a question around a biblical tale about a queen who saved Jews from being massacred by a Persian viceroy: Did Mr. Pompeo think President Trump had been “raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?”
“As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible,” Mr. Pompeo said, noting with pride “the work that our administration’s done, to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state, remains. I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
One month after starting his job in April 2018, Mr. Pompeo worked with Mr. Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. And he went much further: He announced 12 demands that Iran would have to meet before the United States considered lifting renewed sanctions. Mr. Pompeo has a grand goal of undermining what he calls Iran’s “expansionist foreign policy” — a mission that Mr. Trump never mentions. Iranian leaders see meeting the 12 demands as tantamount to regime suicide, analysts say.
“Most of them are unacceptable to the Iranians,” said R. Nicholas Burns, the top career State Department official under President George W. Bush. “As a result, we’ve had zero contact with them and no ability to influence their behavior.”
Mr. Pompeo’s drive to confront Iran on all fronts has become conflated with the aim of keeping limits on its nuclear program. By contrast, top officials under Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama kept a compartmentalized focus on the nuclear issue, since that was more easily addressed alone.
In April, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton pushed Mr. Trump to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, even though Pentagon and C.I.A. officials opposed the action, saying it could provoke attacks. Mr. Pompeo then announced the end of permission for eight governments, including American allies, to bypass sanctions in buying oil from Iran. Those moves, analysts say, have led to the current crisis.
In recent classified briefings to Congress and in public declarations, Mr. Pompeo has discussed ties between Iran and Al Qaeda. Democratic and some Republican lawmakers say that is a blatant attempt to lay the groundwork for bypassing the need for new congressional war authorization if Mr. Trump decides to strike Iran.