The White House Builds a Path to War with Iran
By Ishaan Tharoor
The Washington Post
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter .
At a meeting with journalists in New York last month, Iran’s top diplomat presented a mnemonic for what he saw afflicting his nation. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decried the “four Bs,” a group of men who, in Zarif’s view, were perfidiously steering the United States toward war with Iran. These were Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, United Arab Emirates crown prince and de facto ruler Mohamed bin Zayed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and White House national security adviser John Bolton. The first two, Sunni Arab royals, see Iran as a regional nemesis; the latter two have made no secret of their hostility to diplomacy with Tehran and their desire, instead, for regime change there.
Zarif stressed that he believed that these four men were at odds with President Trump, a leader averse to military entanglements in the Middle East and somebody who, left to his own devices, would happily cut a new deal with the Islamic republic rather than try to squeeze it into submission. But if the Iranian foreign minister genuinely thought Trump would tack a different direction a few weeks ago, he may think otherwise now.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan last week presented an updated military plan that included the possible deployment of 120,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East, which could theoretically form the logistical springboard for a ground invasion of Iran. Shanahan did so on the apparent request of Bolton, who not long before issued a video of himself announcing the arrival of a U.S. carrier group in the region in response to supposed new threats from Iran and its militant proxies in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
“The high-level review of the Pentagon’s plans was presented during a meeting about broader Iran policy,” noted the Times. “It was held days after what the Trump administration described, without evidence, as new intelligence indicating that Iran was mobilizing proxy groups in Iraq and Syria to attack American forces.”
The following day, Trump scoffed at the report but didn’t deny that he would entertain such a commitment. “It’s fake news, okay?” he told reporters. “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops” than the 120,000 figure floated by the Times.
As my colleague Adam Taylor wrote, American military planners are well aware of the colossal risks of conflict with Iran. But that doesn’t mean American political leadership will steer the country away from a confrontational course. As with Venezuela and North Korea, Trump appears to have let Bolton take the lead on Iran, with potentially dangerous consequences.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on the Iranian regime seeks to choke off Iran’s oil exports and coerce the regime to change its policies in the region. (Experts warn that sanctions are only galvanizing nationalist sentiment among Iranians.) In response, after a year of reckoning with the United States’ reimposed sanctions, the Iranian government resumed a number of its nuclear activities previously curtailed by the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers — an agreement that Trump, spurred by Bolton, opted to reject.
Tensions spiked after alleged attacks over the weekend on four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, which an anonymous U.S. official linked to Iran. On Tuesday, Saudi authorities said that armed drones flown by Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels hit two pumping stations on a major Saudi oil pipeline. Iranian officials denied culpability for the tanker attacks and claimed that they were being wrongly framed for sabotage. The Trump administration has long pointed to the “destabilizing” behavior of Iran and its militant allies in the region; analysts now fear that the guardrails that once kept a dangerous escalation at bay have fallen to the wayside.
“The sense of foreboding is tangible, the threats from both sides are no longer rhetorical,” wrote the New Yorker’s Robin Wright. “Before the nuclear-deal negotiations began, in 2013, Washington was consumed with hyped talk of the United States or its allies bombing Iran. If the nuclear deal formally dies, talk of military confrontation may again fill both capitals—even if neither country wants it.”
In an interview with CNN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, suggested that the talk of new U.S. troop deployments to the Middle East was “psychological warfare” and then echoed Zarif’s talking point. “Nobody is going to have benefit from such a conflict in our region, except for a few, some people in Washington and some countries in our neighborhood,” Ravanchi said.
For now, the Trump administration insists that it doesn’t want a fight. “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on the sidelines of meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday. “We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked we will most certainly respond in the appropriate fashion.”
But the White House’s moves have clearly irked allies in Europe and elsewhere, if not the “four Bs” identified by Zarif. On Monday, Pompeo unsuccessfully crashed a gathering of European foreign ministers, hoping to gin up a united front on Iran. He came away with little to show for it. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, cautioned that rather than “maximum pressure” on Iran, “the most responsible attitude to take should be that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side.”
On Tuesday, Spanish authorities announced that they were withdrawing a frigate from a U.S.-led naval group in the Persian Gulf because Madrid wanted no part in an explicitly anti-Iran mission. “The U.S. government has taken a decision outside of the framework of what had been agreed with the Spanish navy,” acting defense minister Margarita Robles told reporters in Brussels. On the same day, a leading British military officer in the anti-Islamic State coalition said there was “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” according to the Guardian, seemingly contradicting the recent messaging from American civilian and military officials.
For some analysts, the lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq — which saw Bolton and other U.S. officials twist intelligence to justify war — have gone unheeded.
“I really cannot believe that we failed to learn anything from the first decade of this century,” Elise Jordan, a former official in the George W. Bush White House, said during an appearance on MSNBC. “And we are actually considering escalating with Iran in a war that would further destabilize the region and unleash God knows what in terms of chaos in a very troubled region already.”
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.