Asked by a reporter on Thursday if the U.S. would go to war with Iran, President Donald Trump, a leader whose aggressive bluster sometimes belies his more isolationist impulses, answered simply: “I hope not.”
It was a less-than-reassuring response amid intensifying tensions.
This week, a U.S. aircraft carrier set sail for the Persian Gulf with B-52 bombers. The U.S. is reportedly drawing up plans to deploy 120,000 troops to the Middle East in the event that Iran attacks American forces in Iraq. The New York Times reports that intelligence officials have declassified a photo of a purported Iranian missile on a boat in the Gulf.
In another ominous development, the U.S. State Department this week ordered all non-emergency staff out of Baghdad, a move interpreted by analysts as a precaution ahead of possible fighting in the region.
How this fragile situation came to pass, Iran specialists say, is tied to the motivations of bellicose actors in the White House, as well as Mideast powers that cheered on the U.S. exit from the Iran nuclear deal last year.
If not for Trump withdrawing from the nuclear pact; if not for U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s hawkish position toward Tehran; and if not for Sunni states and Israel wielding influence with this administration, the U.S. might not be in this crisis, they say.
The region is becoming a tinderbox, with the risk of miscalculation — a patrol boat firing a warning shot that accidentally kills an American, for example — potentially igniting a full-blown war.
Trita Parsi, the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based National Iranian American Council, a non-profit representing the Iranian-American community, laments what he sees as “manufactured” peril of the White House’s own making.
“This is an unnecessary crisis,” Parsi said of the U.S. now seemingly moving toward the brink of possible armed conflict, despite Iran’s continued compliance in curbing its nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief from other countries.
“This conflict is only here because John Bolton wants this conflict.”
‘Makes Dick Cheney look like Mother Teresa’
Bolton has a long history of displaying hawkish tendencies. He has endorsed regime change in Iran, calling for “the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime” in a July 2017 address to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant group that advocates achieving that end through violence.
He championed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the disastrous aftermath of which continues to this day.
He also pushed for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, laying out his case in a 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed that warned that the U.S. “should not wait until the very last minute” for North Korea to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Before his appointment as Trump’s chief adviser on national security, Bolton authored a 2015 op-ed in The New York Times articulating his solution for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb: “Bomb Iran.”
Bolton served with Vice-President Dick Cheney in George W. Bush’s administration in the aughts. If Cheney was known for his “hard-line” influence over Bush while pushing the Iraq War and defending waterboarding interrogation techniques, then Bolton was a hard-liner among hard-liners, Parsi said.
“We’re talking about somebody who makes Dick Cheney look like Mother Teresa.”
Bolton holds sway, too. Under his counsel, Trump reneged on his promise to withdraw troops from Syria. Although Trump objected to regime change in Venezuela, he heeded Bolton’s advice to push for an uprising to oust dictator Nicolas Maduro. When that uprising failed, a peculiar thing happened: The president told reporters he needed to rein in his national security adviser.
“He has strong views on things, which is OK,” Trump said of Bolton. “I’m the one who tempers him.”
While Trump has long criticized Iran and campaigned for president on a promise to leave the Iran nuclear deal, his opposition to the Islamic republic has veered toward more militaristic measures since Bolton’s appointment last year, said retired army lieutenant-colonel Danny Davis, a fellow with the Defense Priorities think-tank in Washington.
Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” has escalated to the point where Iran is now in a chokehold. The U.S. aims to stop Iran’s exports of oil to other nations, threatening penalties for Iran’s customers. Applying such pressure without offering a release valve could cause the Iranians to lash out in a way that could spark a war, Davis said.
“If you push somebody into a corner, then push them into a cage, then into a corner of that cage, they’ll eventually come to a decision of letting themselves be crushed, or using the military power they have,” Davis warned.
The prospect of cutting off oil exports would be tantamount to “an act of war,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a geopolitical think-tank in D.C.
“We’re really at a very dangerous moment now,” she said. “I call that cruel and counterproductive. Many of us are scratching our heads because I don’t think there’s any real strategy behind it.”
If there is a plan, she said, it might be a bid by Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to see their regime-change dreams come true by inflicting so much misery on the Iranian people that economically starved resisters rise up and topple their rulers.
“That’s delusional,” Slavin said.
Speaking in Moscow this week, Pompeo said the U.S. is not seeking war with Iran.
But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sunni states with historical enmity for Iran’s Shia Muslim-majority population, are engaged in a proxy war with Iran. Both countries have pushed the U.S. to take a more aggressive stance against Iran.
The Saudis and Emiratis have been close regional allies for the Trump administration, with the White House showing deference to the Saudis by siding with the kingdom on the Qatar blockade, and offering a tame response to the slaying of a Washington Post journalist by assailants believed to have taken orders from the Saudi crown prince.
“And let’s not leave out Israel,” Slavin said. The Jewish state wants the Iranian government contained and to have less money to fund groups like Hezbollah, which the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization.
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an event in Jerusalem that Israel had enjoyed renewed relations with Arab neighbours because “we are united in our desire to stop Iranian aggression.”
Last year, Netanyahu claimed credit for ending U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal, boasting: “We convinced the U.S. president [to exit the deal] and I had to stand up against the whole world and come out against this agreement.”
Slavin was not surprised to hear analysts like Davis and Parsi speculate that alleged Iranian attacks on four oil tankers — among them Saudi and Emirati vessels — might be “false flag” incidents staged to incite war.
“I think there are various parties interested in fomenting a war and creating an incident that can be blamed on Iran,” Slavin said. “But there are a lot of hotheads in Iran, too. And they’re very angry with what the Trump administration has done.”
Iran denied responsibility for the attacks.
Meanwhile, a top British general’s assessment that there has been no threat increase from Iran in the region drew rebuke from the Pentagon, a rare statement of disagreement from a fellow member of the Five Eyes nations that supposedly share intelligence information.
Such discrepancies have roused questions about whether the administration’s intelligence on Iran should be trusted, reviving echoes of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a conflict cheered on by Bolton and justified using false or overstated evidence of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
With discrepancies on intelligence arising once again, this time with Iran, Parsi warned against history repeating itself.
“We should be skeptical,” he said. “Bolton has blatantly lied before.”