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Iran's chancellor Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference at the Nicaraguan State Department in Managua, Nicaragua on August 23, 2016. Iran's chancellor Mohammad Javad Zarif is traveling with a large delegation of officials and business executives to Latin America intrested in participate in Nicaragua's new interoceanic channel project among others. / AFP / AlfredoZuniga (Photo credit should read ALFREDOZUNIGA/AFP/Getty Images)
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(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump’s amped up rhetoric that the US is “locked and loaded” sparked new fears of war with Iran but also confusion about his true intentions following an attack on a Saudi oil field that rocked global oil markets.

The Trump administration upgraded the incident into a global crisis with its swift move to directly blame Iran for the coordinated drone strike. The strike was claimed by Houthi rebels that Tehran supports in Yemen.

The President’s comments sparked immediate uncertainty over whether he was being serious or whether this tension-raising tweet was – like a similar warning once aimed at North Korea – a risky negotiating tactic.

It is unclear whether his “locked and loaded” phraseology threatens military force against Iran, its proxies in Iraq or Yemen or some kind of US response that stops short of retaliatory attacks.

In fresh sign of the administration’s incoherent messaging on a war-or-peace issue, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short appeared to try to draw the US back from the brink on Monday morning.

“I think that ‘locked and loaded’ is a broad term and talks about the realities that we’re all far safer and more secure domestically from energy independence,” he told reporters.

But Trump’s aggressive response already has raised the possibility that the US could become embroiled in a military confrontation between two bitter regional rivals that could quickly spin out of control.

The latest developments also underscore that even without recently departed Iran hawk John Bolton in the White House, the path of US Iran policy perpetually courts the risk of a dangerous escalation.

They also highlight the head-spinning nature of Trump’s foreign policy. The President had recently seemed to be trying to set up a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as he goes in pursuit of big wins abroad to boost his reelection bid. Now, he’s apparently threatening war.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.

Confusion about Trump’s intentions at a time of flaring tensions with Iran was compounded by another of his tweets on Monday morning that appeared to downplay the effect of the oil refinery attack on US interests.

“We are a net Energy Exporter, & now the Number One Energy Producer in the World. We don’t need Middle Eastern Oil & Gas, & in fact have very few tankers there, but will help our Allies!”

That tweet bolstered a growing impression that US foreign policy at any moment depends on Trump’s whiplash mood reflected by his often contradictory tweets, a culture of inconsistency that US adversaries may now be exploiting.

On Sunday, for instance, Trump claimed reports that he had agreed to meet Rouhani with “no conditions” was incorrect. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the President “has said he would sit down with Rouhani with no conditions.”

Risks of war

If he was intending to rattle Iran but not signal military action, Trump’s brinkmanship will spark fresh fears that his hyper personal approach could inadvertently drag the US into a conflict that could quickly escalate with unpredictable, damaging consequences in the Middle East and beyond.

US officials Sunday pointed to satellite imagery provided to CNN showing the oil facilities were struck from the northwest, suggesting an attack from Iraq, where Tehran has proxies or Iran, among other information. Tehran has denied any involvement.

But if the attack was the work of Iran there will be speculation that Tehran has concluded that the President’s previous unwillingness to back up his rhetoric with military force during a previous confrontation in July and the departure of Bolton, mea