One week ago, National Security Adviser John Bolton seemed to be laying a trap for the leaders of Iran, squeezing them into a corner where they would have no choice but to lash out. Now he seems to be setting the stage to strike back—to topple the regime by force—if and when they take the bait.
The New York Times reported Monday that, at Bolton’s request, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks U.S. forces or resumes work on the nuclear program that it halted and mostly dismantled four years ago, after signing an accord with the United States and five other nations.
President Donald Trump backed out of the Iran nuclear deal soon after taking office, then reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted as part of the deal, and then, more recently, applied sanctions on all other nations that continued doing business with Iran—a move that is squeezing Iran’s economy and decimating its oil exports.
Trump has also declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite unit of its military, to be a “foreign terrorist organization,” a move that also carries sanctions—the first time anyone has tagged the label onto a government entity. The State Department and the Pentagon had urged Trump not to take this step, fearing backlash against U.S. forces in the region. As if on cue, Iran declared Central Command, the dominant U.S. military force in the region, to be a terrorist organization. If Iran were to attack any of those forces, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy—and a provocation, or excuse, for the U.S. to strike back.
Like clockwork, the Pentagon announced, earlier this month, that it was dispatching an aircraft carrier and four bomber aircraft to the Middle East in response to signs that Iranian proxies were preparing to attack U.S. interests—though some officials said that the signs weren’t so threatening and that a carrier was scheduled to deploy in the region anyway. Then, this past weekend, four oil tankers—including two owned by Saudi Arabia and one by the United Arab Emirates, both of which are avowed enemies of Iran—were reportedly struck by some object in the Persian Gulf. No evidence has yet been shown of any damage, or attacks, but fingers were pointed to Iran as the culprit.
If all this rings a discordant bell—echoes of Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, WMD in Iraq, the Maine in the Caribbean, and other contrived provocations that have pushed the country to war—well, there may be a good reason for that.
Colin Kahl tweeted on Monday, “I oversaw Iran policy and planning at the Pentagon from 2009-2011, at the height of concerns over Iran’s nuclear progress, and no plausible contingency except invasion and regime change would require sending 120,000 U.S. forces to the Middle East.”
Kahl, now a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, elaborated in an email that the number 120,000 is a bit curious, in that it’s more than the number needed for airstrikes and special operations forces incursions—the sort of “limited” operation that some officers might fantasize would be enough to oust the regime—but far fewer than the number needed for an all-out invasion. “My guess,” he wrote, “is that this is a ham-fisted info op [information operation] aimed at deterring Iran” from shutting down the Strait of Hormuz or attacking U.S. interests.
This is not a reassuring theory. Bluffs and escalations could still rope the United States into a conflict, and Bolton—one of the very few officials from the George W. Bush administration who has no regrets about the invasion of Iraq—has long pressed for regime change in Iran.
It is not yet clear what Trump himself wants. (The Times story said it was “unclear whether the president has been briefed on the number of troops or other details in the plans.”) On Thursday, the same day that Shanahan briefed Bolton and a few others on the new military plan, Trump publicly said of Iran’s leaders, “I would like to see them call me.” The next day, CNN reported that the White House contacted Switzerland—an occasional intermediary between the U.S. and Iranian governments—and provided a phone number that the Iranians could call to speak with the president. Iranian officials have said they’re not interested in initiating a call—though, in a Q&A with reporters in New York last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was open to continued negotiations with Washington.
Trump has said the goal of his “maximum pressure” campaign is to get the Iranians to come back to the table and negotiate an “improved” nuclear deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sometimes said this as well, but more often he has said sanctions will not be lifted until Iran changes its “behavior” on myriad fronts, including its testing of ballistic missiles and its support for Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi movement, and Shiite militias in Iraq. (The last condition is ironic, in that those militias have been very active in battling ISIS, which is the United States’ biggest foe in Iraq and Syria.)
On Monday, en route to a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi (where nothing at all productive seems to have happened), Pompeo crashed a European Union meeting in Brussels—unexpected and uninvited—to harangue Western leaders on the threat from Iran. EU officials very much favor preserving the Iranian deal and are deeply bitter at Trump for riling tensions in the region and, beyond that, for forcing them to reimpose sanctions—essentially hijacking their own foreign policies and undermining what they see as their legitimate national security interests.
Pompeo’s drop-in occurred almost simultaneously with Trump’s warm White House welcome of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—an illiberal ultra-nationalist who has done more to damage democratic forces and subvert the EU than any other leader on the continent. For Pompeo to seek European unity on Trump’s unpopular Iran policy, while Trump was meeting with the leading internal opponent of the EU, aggravated the tensions.
Trump showed his true colors at his meeting—and made things worse still—by praising Orbán (whom Presidents Obama and Bush had refused to invite to the White House) as a “respected man” who has “done a tremendous job in so many ways.” Trump has harshly criticized Germany and other European allies for spending less than 2 percent of their GDP on defense and thus failing to meet their NATO obligations—but he praised Orbán as an upstanding member of NATO, even though Hungary has devoted an even lower percentage to defense.
Finally, in a move that is largely symbolic but politically significant, Spain—a member of NATO—has pulled a frigate from a U.S.-led naval battle group headed toward the Persian Gulf because of disagreements over Iran.
So let’s sum up. Trump is playing escalation games with Iran—games that could lead to war, whether Trump wants that or not—while doing nothing to seek diplomatic alternatives or to make a case that war is justified, in fact alienating U.S. allies whose support would be useful (if not vital) in a war and, at the same time, ginning up a trade war with China, which, in its early phases, is already wreaking havoc with markets and threatening to damage an otherwise-healthy American economy.
Trump isn’t fiddling while the world is in turmoil; he’s fanning the flames without realizing that’s what he’s doing.