by William D. Hartung
In a move that set off alarm bells among those concerned about the potential consequences of the harsh turn in U.S.-Iranian relations, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last week that unnamed “senior officials” of the Australian government were suggesting that the Trump administration was crafting a plan to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities as early as August. Australian officials, including Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, denied knowledge of any such plan, and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis described the report as “fiction at best,” adding “I am confident that it is not something that’s being considered right now.”
The denials regarding a plan to attack Iran within weeks are likely true, given the thin evidence they are based on. Nevertheless, what is the most likely U.S. policy towards Iran in the wake of President Trump’s tweet that if Iran’s leaders threaten the United States they will “suffer consequences the likes of which few in history have ever suffered before?” Is this just another outburst of Trumpian hyperbole or a prelude to possible military action down the road?
This is Donald Trump after all, and this week’s word is that the president is willing to speak to Iran’s leaders “without preconditions.” But this is a non-starter unless his administration reverses its violation of the nuclear deal so painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration and U.S. allies and stops the threatening rhetoric that Trump can’t seem to restrain himself from engaging in.
It’s no secret that President Trump and his inner circle have no love for the Iranian regime. Before joining the administration, current Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton took to the pages of The New York Times to advocate bombing Iran. And in late 2017, Bolton told an audience at an event organized by the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK)—which spent years on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations and has been described as a “cult-like dissident group” with virtually no following inside Iran—that “the declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.” He further suggested that the overthrow should occur before the regime’s fortieth anniversary in power, which falls in February 2019. Statements like these prompted Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) to assert that “the appointment of Bolton is essentially a declaration of war on Iran.”
On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another long-time hawk on Iran, spoke to a handpicked audience of Iranian-Americans at the Reagan Library in an effort to whip up support for the administration’s propaganda campaign against the government of Iran. Towards the end of his remarks, Pompeo praised Ronald Reagan’s call “to help others gain their freedom”—a goal Reagan pursued by providing military support to anti-government rebels in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, and beyond. Although purportedly aimed at exposing corruption and human rights abuses in Iran, the not-so-subtle underlying message of Pompeo’s speech was that the Trump administration is more than willing to support regime change in Iran.
This week’s announcement of President Trump’s support for an “Arab NATO” including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt is another shot across the bow of Iran. An alliance of this sort has been a fervent hope of the Saudi regime for some time, and it risks escalating conflict in the region. What will happen, for example, if the Saudis try to blow up an incident involving Houthi rebels in Yemen—who receive some backing from Iran but have their own agenda and are far from Iranian “puppets”—into a rationale to launch an attack against Iran, attempting to drag the Trump administration into a dangerous and unnecessary war? Which Donald Trump will respond: the one who railed against regime change policies in Iraq and Libya while running for president or the one who has bent over backward to please his “very good friends” in Saudi Arabia?
For the moment, it appears that the Trump administration strategy—if such a term can be applied to a government headed by Donald Trump—is to step up economic pressure and propaganda against Iran, while reaching out to internal opponents of the regime and perhaps providing covert support at some point, if it is not doing so already. Even short of direct military action, this approach is both incoherent and dangerous. Squeezing Iran’s economy is likely to raise gas prices in the United States, and the Trump administration’s trade war against the very countries it needs to help isolate Iran economically does not offer great hopes for success on that front. But when economic pressure and indirect action don’t have the desired effect, what comes next?
War with Iran may not be imminent, but neither was war with Iraq in late 2001. But less than a year and a half later, under pressure from anti-Iraq hawks in and outside of government, including John Bolton, the Bush administration launched its ill-fated invasion, with a rash of negative consequences that persist to this day. Congress and the public need to push back vigorously against any notion of taking military action against Iran and press for actual diplomacy, not rhetorical maneuvering. The time to speak out is before a war begins, not afterward.