Both countries say they don’t want it. But here’s a scenario where it happens anyway.
Having invested his credibility and political future in looking tough, Trump seemed to have no choice. A president who had promised to extricate America from endless wars in the Middle East found himself sending more than 100,000 troops back into the desert. Only this time, the United States was invading a country with
- 80 million people (twice Iraq’s population),
- a territory 68 percent larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and with
- hundreds of thousands of the best paramilitary troops in the world.
Asked at an impromptu news conference about the deployment, Trump simply said, “I warned Iran that if they chose to fight, we would end them.” It was a war that neither Trump nor Iranian leaders wanted — and yet, at each critical moment, escalation seemed like the only way to defend vital national interests and respond to political imperatives. Circumstances had simply become too combustible. And once the fuse was lit, no one could stop the explosion.
Trump’s goal is not to start a war. His administration has three objectives:
- First, restore deterrence and contain Iran’s expansionism across the Middle East.
- Second, roll back Iran’s gains and force it back within its borders.
- And third, give Iran’s leaders a clear choice: They can come to the negotiating table, give up their nuclear and missile ambitions, and act like a normal country — or their regime can implode, just like the Soviet Union.
When Trump came into office, Iran was on the march across the Middle East —
- in Syria,
- Iraq and
— thanks to the Obama administration’s failure to confront Iranian aggression and the massive infusions of cash it received from sanctions relief under President Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Trump withdrew from the deal, but he did not simply restore sanctions imposed before it; he ramped them up to unprecedented levels. The sanctions have already “wiped $10 billion from Iranian revenue since November,” The Post reported, citing administration officials.
This month, the administration tightened the screws even further, eliminating waivers for eight countries that had previously been allowed to continue importing Iranian oil. The goal, according to American officials, is to reduce Iranian oil exports to “zero.” It’s working. Bloomberg News reports that “Iran’s oil shipments tumbled this month after the U.S. ended sanctions waivers. . . . So far, not a single ship has been seen leaving Iran’s oil terminals for foreign ports.”
The new sanctions are forcing Tehran to cut funds to its terrorist proxies. According to The Post, “Iran’s ability to finance allies such as Hezbollah has been curtailed,” while in Lebanon, the New York Times reports, “Syrian militiamen paid by Iran have seen their salaries slashed” because, to quote one fighter, “Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.” On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that “Iran’s proposed defense budget has been reduced by 25 percent and the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’] proposed budget by about 10 percent.”
Iran is obviously unhappy with this, and U.S. intelligence saw signs that Iran was preparing to respond with attacks on Americans using terrorist proxies — just as they did in the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and by supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with armor-penetrating roadside bombs that killed hundreds of American soldiers.
So the Trump administration delivered a clear message that America will hold Iran directly responsible for any attacks on Americans, even if they are carried out by surrogates — and offered a show of force to back those threats. Far from making war more likely, this kind of clarity makes it less likely that Iranian leaders will miscalculate — because they know the consequences.
Sanctions are inflicting major pain. But if the goal is not only to contain but also to roll back Iran’s expansionism, then sanctions alone are not enough. We must also aggressively confront Iran throughout the region, building up our allies and bleeding the Iranians wherever we can — inflicting defeats on them in critical theaters such as Syria and Iraq, just as President Ronald Reagan did to the Soviets during the Cold War.
A major drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria is incompatible with a “maximum pressure” approach.
Will Iranian leaders come to the table? Far less draconian sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table under Obama. But Trump has rightly paired tougher sanctions with tougher demands. Pompeo has laid out 12 requirements for a deal with Iran — including an end to support for Middle East terrorist groups and a complete withdrawal from Syria — that Iran is unlikely to meet.
If they don’t come to the table, then what is our strategy? Does Trump really want to bring about the collapse of the Iranian regime? It’s not clear. If he does, then, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Frederick W. Kagan points out, this task may be even harder than it was with the Soviet Union. As North Korea has shown, tyrannical regimes can survive even crippling sanctions. Certainly, the world will be better if Iran is focused on survival rather than expansion and terror. But it will take more than sanctions to leave the Iranian regime on the ash heap of history. That requires a strategy.
Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.
And that person is Donald Trump.
How screwed up is that?
Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?
Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.
Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.
.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”
But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”
“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.
Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?
I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.
In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.
“And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.
When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.
The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)
W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.
Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.
But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”
David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”
He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”
“If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?”
Iran accused officials in the Trump administration and its Middle East allies of attempting to frame it for an attack on oil tankers near a strategic Persian Gulf waterway.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Tuesday said “some radical individuals inside the U.S. administration and the region” were pursuing “dangerous policies” in an attempt to pull the Americans into a military conflict with Iran.
“We had predicted that some would want to escalate tension in the region by some actions,” Mr. Zarif said in New Delhi after a meeting with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj.
.. “Spreading “fake intelligence” should alert everybody to what we call the B-team’s mal-intentions toward the region and the stability of the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Miryousefi said.
Iranian officials often use the term “B-team” for a quartet of people they say are trying to stoke conflict with Iran: White House Security Adviser
- John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister
- Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince
- Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince
- Mohammed bin Zayed.
The White House has yet to directly blame Iran for the attack, but President Trump said Monday that, “If [the Iranians] do anything, they will suffer greatly.”
.. While Tehran has lashed out against the Trump administration for ditching the accord, it also spent weeks trying to de-escalate tensions by staying in the deal along with the other parties.
Even some U.S. officials acknowledge a reluctance from Iran to ratchet up tensions. In late April, one week after Washington said it would not renew waivers to Iran’s oil customers. A U.S. official said its military intelligence showed that the Iranian Navy had not changed its behavior in the Persian Gulf despite threats to close down the strait if Tehran itself was unable to use it.
Meanwhile, Iranian officials such as Mr. Zarif have warned that some officials in the U.S., alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel, might try to lure Iran into a military confrontation.
“There are worries about suspicious actions and sabotages in the region, and we have predicted them before,” Mr. Zarif said. He has previously said he doesn’t believe President Trump wants a war with Iran.
.. Saudi Arabia halted pumping on a major oil pipeline after two pipeline boosters were attacked by drones, the kingdom’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement.
.. Saudi and U.S. officials accuse Iran of providing the Houthis with training and designs to build their drones. Tehran denies the charges.
.. The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, appeared to temper tensions after the attacks on the tankers.
“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Monday.
“It’s not in (Iran’s) interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict,” he said.