by Joe Cirincione and Mary Kaszynski
This is not a drill. A new Middle East war is coming, perhaps soon. Only dramatic political action by the American people and their political leaders can stop it.
President Trump says he does not want war with Iran. Perhaps the entire war scare is just another neurotic impulse. Or he may believe that he is deftly executing a “fire and fury” feint, as with North Korea earlier, where he threatens war and “the end of Iran” only to back down and offer talks. His latest dismissal of the alleged attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf as “very minor” would indicate that this is indeed his game.
But the deeper he gets in, the harder it becomes to get out. Don’t bet on all this blowing over. Trump’s closest allies (and business partners) in the region—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel—urge military attacks. “The next logical step,” a prominent Saudi paper editorialized, “should be surgical strikes.” His closest Washington advisors in the White House, the State Department, and Fox News also want war and have said so repeatedly. They link it explicitly to “40 years of Iranian aggression.” They skillfully feed reporters sound bites and cherry-picked intelligence to convince them to report Iran’s “malign activities” in the region. With Trump’s approval or ignorance, they have taken a series of steps, beginning with the ill-advised and unnecessary abrogation of the Iran anti-nuclear accord, to provoke a conflict.
Their provocation is working. U.S. intelligence officials have said that recent military posturing from Iran “is in response to the administration’s aggressive steps over the last two months.” But as in other conflict spirals, U.S. actions are ignored in the official statements. “The National Security Strategy lists Iran as one of the four top threats, and we just need to be sure we’ve got the capability to deter them from these kinds of activities, threatening American lives and facilities, threatening the international oil market,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said of the new deployment of 1,000 U.S. troops to the Gulf, adding that “they would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president’s resolve on this.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, is working full-time to lay the groundwork for military strikes. In a recent closed-door briefing with members of Congress, Pompeo suggested that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force—the legal authority for the war in Afghanistan—allows the administration to launch military strikes against Iran. He visited the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday and is coordinating with Iran’s regional and religious rivals.
With the rhetoric ramping up to fever pitch, Trump may be “man-shamed” into a war he may not understand or desire. Arab princes and war hawks will tell him that he cannot back down lest he appear weak. They will promise him that a small “bloody nose” attack will “restore deterrence” and cause Iran to back down. It’s easy, they will whisper, unless, of course, the president is afraid to strike.
It is a classic method of manipulating deeply insecure individuals. Think of the “chicken” taunts that always got Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future character Marty McFly to commit to foolish misadventures. In this case, Trump will wreak havoc not with a fictional timeline but with the entire Middle East and the global economy.
The rest of the world watches in disbelief. Even for this administration, the level of immorality and duplicity is breathtaking. All of America’s major European and Asian allies are deeply skeptical of the Trump team’s claims, the need for military force, and the strategy behind this self-escalating crisis.
In the year since Trump walked away from America’s commitments in the Iran anti-nuclear agreement, promising a “better deal,” the administration has both failed to achieve any of its Iran objectives and severely damaged U.S. credibility. It has set a world record for the scale and frequency of lies told at various podiums, in interviews, and via Twitter accounts. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard may, indeed, be behind the attacks, but this administration cannot be trusted to prove that. Only an independent investigation can determine the truth.
U.S. allies and the vast majority of national security experts and former officials support the Iran anti-nuclear accord. Negotiated over several years with European allies, China, and Russia, the agreement was a triumph of international diplomacy. It successfully blocked each of Iran’s pathways to the bomb, without provoking a military conflict. The deal worked. Iran ended its dangerous nuclear activities and submitted to the most intrusive inspections and monitoring regime in existence today.
Despite Trump’s abrogation—technically, the United States is in violation of the agreement since there is no withdrawal mechanism—the Europeans and Iranians have kept the deal alive. Iran remains in full compliance, according to the U.S. intelligence community, the Israeli intelligence community, and the quarterly reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This is what Trump was told by his secretary of defense, director of national intelligence, and CIA director, who testified repeatedly that the deal is working. Trump dismissed their professional assessments. European leaders trekked to Washington begging Trump to stay in the deal, warning that it was vital for Europe’s security. Trump ignored them. Abetted by Pompeo (a longtime critic of Iran) and Bolton (a cheerleader for the Iraq War), Trump violated the deal, reimposed sanctions the United States had sworn to remove, and embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign to bring Iran to its knees.
Now provoked and without the economic benefits promised in the agreement, Iran predictably announced that it will soon take steps to breach some of the limits. Although regrettable and unnecessary, these are relatively minor, reversible steps. There is no risk that Iran will sprint to a bomb, even with the small increase in low-enriched uranium it may soon have.
This is not a nuclear crisis, certainly nothing that cannot be fixed by the United States simply returning to the nuclear deal. Such a return would keep all limits firmly in place and accomplish the goal Trump claims that he wants: to deprive Iran of the ability to build a nuclear bomb.
If the administration continues to goad Iran, however, it will escalate into a new nuclear crisis created entirely by Trump.
Fortunately, an alternative strategy is forming. Both the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would bar funding for an illegal, unauthorized war with Iran. All the top Democratic presidential candidates have publicly committed to rejoining the anti-nuclear agreement, returning to diplomatic talks with Iran and our allies, and rebuilding U.S. credibility and global leadership. Activists, veterans organizations, and mass movement groups are mobilizing to prevent a war that would make the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan look like warm-up acts.
These activists and political leaders grasp the idiocy of the Pompeo-Bolton strategy: that somehow Iran is so powerful that it is the source of all evil in the Middle East, yet so fragile that a small cruise missile attack on an Iranian civilian nuclear plant will cause it to crumble. But has the American public become so overwhelmed by Trump’s daily outrages that it will fail to grasp the dangers of this moment?
This is a race between peace and war, between reason and fantasy. Unless those standing for peace and reason significantly increase their efforts, the United States will, once again, be misled into an unnecessary war with catastrophic consequence.
Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, and the host of the podcast, Press the Button. Mary Kaszynski is deputy policy director at Ploughshares Fund and a contributor to Press the Button.