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Donald Trump Is Going To Bomb Iran

It’s a bad idea. But personnel changes — Pompeo for Tillerson, Bolton for McMaster — indicate war is coming

America’s more focused on North Korea, but there’s a bigger danger of war with Iran.

North Korea has nuclear weapons. No U.S. ally, and few Americans, advocate attack. By contrast, Iran lacks a nuclear deterrent. American hawks, primarily in the Republican party, as well as U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, want the United States to confront Iran.

Whether their ideal confrontation takes the form of military action is uncertain. But they’re clamoring for Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and war is the likely result.

On March 13, Trump removed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who believes the U.S. should honor the JCPOA as long as Iran continues living up to its obligations. To take Tillerson’s place, Trump nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a staunch Iran Deal critic.

Nine days later, Trump removed National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who agrees with Tillerson that the U.S. shouldn’t be the first to break the nuclear agreement. The president replaced him with John Bolton, perhaps the world’s biggest Iran hawk.

Though these personnel changes suggest confrontation with Iran, most Trump critics interpreted them through a Russian lens. For example, the Atlantic’s David Frum wrote:

The specific timing of the move — following the secretary of state’s split from the president to condemn a Russian attack in the U.K. — raises questions about its motive.

And here’s Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu with a similar insinuation about McMaster:

However, fixating on Russia ignores more salient connections to the Middle East.

First Sign: Relationships With Middle East Allies

Since last summer I’ve been increasingly concerned the Trump administration is lining up to attack Iran. The first signs came in Saudi Arabia, during Trump’s first international trip as president. In a May 21, 2017 speech in Riyadh, the president blamed terrorism primarily on Iran.

Though Iran sponsors Hezbollah and other designated terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia bears considerable responsibility for Islamic terrorism. Jihadists are Sunni, while Iran is Shia. And the Saudis fund global promotion of Salafism — the fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam embraced by al Qaeda — as part of their devil’s bargain with the religious establishment that keeps them in power. Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi, as are many ISIS members.

Saudi Arabia is a U.S. partner — which serves American interests, since the realistic alternatives to the Saudis are a jihaidst-controlled state or a Syria-like chaos — while Iran is an adversary. But the United States has mostly stayed out of the Saudi-Iranian cold war to avoid destabilizing the Middle East. Trump changed that.

Two weeks after Trump’s Riyadh speech, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE cut off relations with Qatar, aiming to get the small, oil-rich country to turn away from Iran, close Al Jazeera, and stop sponsoring terrorism. Trump claimed credit, crowing on Twitter:

It’s true that Qatar funds some terrorist groups. But so do most Middle Eastern governments — including the Saudis and Emiratis — trying to use militants as proxies against their rivals.

When the Saudi-led coalition launched the blockade, it created a problem for the United States. Qatar hosts al Udeid airbase, America’s largest in the Middle East and the command center for the air campaign against ISIS. In response, the U.S. military and State Department sought to mediate the Qatar Crisis, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson running point. It remains unresolved.

Ever since Tillerson got involved, the UAE lobbied heavily for Trump to fire him. And after the president did, influential Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla bragged:

History will record that a GCC country had a role in the sacking of the foreign minister of a great power, and this is only the beginning of more.

It’s hard to know if Abdulla’s right, but this is far from the only suggestion of Emerati influence. Jared Kushner is friends with UAE Ambassador Yousef al Otaiba, and was in regular contact with him after taking over White House Middle East policy. Early in the Qatar Crisis, Trump used language that mirrored al Otaiba’s statements. And the UAE was one of four countries — along with China, Israel, and Mexico — that reportedly sought to manipulate Kushner by exploiting his financial difficulties.

The UAE was also involved in a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev — who manages a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund for the Russian government — that is under investigation by Robert Mueller as an attempt to set up a back-channel with the Kremlin. Prince went to the Seychelles at the invitation of Emerati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and the Emirati delegation introduced him to Dmitriev.

And if you want to read into timing, Trump fired Tillerson after the Secretary of State took a harsh line on Russia, but also a week ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first trip to the United States since he consolidated power. Kushner had made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia in October 2017, staying up late to strategize with MBS (as the Crown Prince is known). Afterwards, MBS reportedly bragged to the head of the UAE that Kushner is “in his pocket.”

Exactly how much influence the Saudis and Emiratis have with Trump is unknowable. But the president’s Middle East agenda aligns with Saudi Arabia and the UAE more closely than Obama’s or Bush’s. And both countries stand to gain if the United States attacks Iran.

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quipped, the Saudis are always ready “to fight Iran to the last American.”

Additionally, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu wants like the United States to adopt a more confrontational approach to Iran.

Much of Israel’s national security and intelligence establishments support the Iran Deal, but Netanyahu denounces it as worse than no deal at all. Trump proudly describes himself as pro-Israel, and sees Netanyahu as a personal ally. That’s another influential voice trying to get the president to withdraw.

Second Sign: Decertifying the Deal

After Obama signed the JCPOA, Congress passed a law requiring the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with its obligations and that the deal remains in America’s national security interests.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which inspects Iranian nuclear sites, believes Iran is honoring its obligations, as do the other parties to the agreement (U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China). As recently as this month, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano announced that Iran is “implementing its nuclear related commitments.”

Though Trump repeatedly called the JCPOA “the worst deal ever,” he certified it twice as president. However, when the third deadline came in October, Trump decertified the deal in a speech reminiscent of George W. Bush’s accusations that Saddam Hussein was secretly developing weapons of mass destruction.

Trump claimed the “Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement” and “intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for.” The inspectors dispute this account, much as international inspectors insisted Iraq did not have active nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs in 2003.

Like the Bush administration arguing Saddam hid his WMD programs from inspectors, Trump insists Iran’s tricking the IAEA, though he hasn’t backed this accusation up with evidence. Instead he denounced Iranian actions that aren’t covered by the nuclear agreement — such as testing ballistic missiles — and declared “Iran is not living up to the spirit of the deal.”

Though Trump officially decertified the JCPOA, he took no action to withdraw, leaving the deal in limbo. On January 12, 2018, Trump again declined to reimpose sanctions. But he issued an ultimatum — not to Iran, but to “our European allies.” If they do not “fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal” by the next certification deadline on May 12, Trump promises to break the agreement.

The Europeans believe Iran’s honoring the deal, and have strong domestic political incentives to reject Trump’s bullying. However, it’s possible they agree to implement additional pressure to prevent the deal from collapsing.

But there’s no way Iran agrees to any changes. With the IAEA — and all parties to the deal besides the United States — saying they’re honoring the agreement, the Iranians know the international community will blame Trump. And, even if they fear what he’ll do, he’s proven himself untrustworthy.

Trump’s position is that the United States should violate a negotiated agreement even if Iran fulfills its obligations. Why would they believe he’ll honor any new commitments?

Third Sign: Staff Shakeup

In 2014, Mike Pompeo — Trump’s new nominee for Secretary of State — called for airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, claiming 2,000 sorties would do the job.

In December 2015, five months after the nuclear agreement, then-Congressman Pompeo gave a talk on “Dealing with Iran in a Post-Deal World.” He denounced the JCPOA, speculated Obama aimed to empower the Iranian mullahs— because “every time there has been a conflict between the Christian west and the Islamic east” Obama was on the wrong side — and said he would’ve preferred if the president told Congress to “prepare for conflict with Iran.”

Pompeo lamented that Obama’s successor could continue his Iran policies, but hoped for someone who would change course. However, if that didn’t happen, Pompeo argued that Congress could do its part by:

Funding our defense establishment in a way that it continues to have the technology and capability… [that] gives us the chance to ultimately get to the finish line, which is the abolition of the current regime.

As Trump’s CIA Director, Pompeo maintained this position, arguing in White House meetings America should withdraw from the Iran Deal. In July 2017, he told the Aspen Security Forum it doesn’t matter if Iran fulfills its obligations, because that compliance is “grudging, minimalist, temporary.” As the United States’ new chief diplomat, Pompeo will be in a greater position to influence America’s relationship with Iran.

Perhaps the only person more hawkish on Iran than Pompeo is John Bolton, a frequent Fox News contributor who served as Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush. Bolton never wavers from his conviction that the Iraq war was a success — not the right decision at the time based on the belief Saddam had WMDs, but an unqualified success based on what we know now. And he thinks we should repeat the experience with Iran.

In March 2015, Bolton published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Four months later, Iran signed the JCPOA, verifiably forfeiting its ability to construct a nuclear weapon.

But Bolton doesn’t care. In a July 3, 2017 speech entitled “Iran: Regime Change is Within Reach,” Bolton said:

Let’s be clear: Even if somebody were to say to you that the regime is in full compliance with the nuclear deal, it doesn’t make any difference.

Bolton becoming National Security Advisor is the clearest sign we’re headed for war. The NSA chairs the National Security Council, the premier organ of American foreign policy. There’s little reason for the president to give the job to someone who wants to bomb Iran unless he wants to attack.

Don’t Attack Iran

Breaking the Iran Deal puts America on the path to war. Freed from its obligations, Iran will likely rush towards a bomb. The United States will have proved incapable of honoring agreements, and Iran knows America violently removed the governments of Iraq and Libya, which didn’t have nuclear weapons, but not North Korea, which does.

When the Iranians start developing nukes, America will have a choice: Allow it or attack.

Trump has repeatedly, unequivocally declared Iran cannot have the bomb. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Pompeo, Bolton, Iran hawks in Congress, Fox News, etc. will pressure him to attack.

As an added motivation, it could improve his domestic political standing. The public tends to rally around the flag at the start of a conflict, and one of the few times Trump received widespread media praise came when he ordered airstrikes against Syria in April 2017.

Pompeo argues the United States can just bomb Iranian nuclear sites, but there’s almost no way it ends there. Even if the U.S. plans a limited attack, it’s impossible for Iran to know that. As the Libya example shows, limited airstrikes and the opening salvos of forced regime change often look the same.

Bolton argues that striking government targets will cause the regime to collapse, but the opposite is more likely. Anti-regime protests in December and January show a robust domestic opposition. But Iranians are also subject to rally around the flag effects, and virtually none are calling on the United States to bomb their country. After Trump’s decertification speech in October 2017, some prominent Iranian dissidents issued statements in support of the government.

Every country knows that declining to retaliate in response to foreign attack invites more pressure. Syria didn’t retaliate for the April 2017 airstrikes, but that’s because the missiles did little damage, and the embattled government lacks the ability to hurt the United States.

But Iran isn’t Syria. Its missiles can hit American bases throughout the Middle East. Its forces and allied militias can attack U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. Its proxy Hezbollah has over 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel, and fought the Israelis to a stalemate in 2006. And Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil flows.

Strait of Hormuz

The U.S. military could defeat Iran if necessary, but the cost would be high. If the conflict somehow remained limited, Iran would redouble its efforts to get nuclear weapons to deter future attacks. But in the event of forced regime change, the United States would have to occupy a country with twice the population of Iraq and nearly four times the area, or leave a chaotic failed state situated between Iraq and Afghanistan.

To avoid these disastrous outcomes, the United States should remain in the Iran nuclear deal as long as Iran continues fulfilling its obligations.

Iran Deal opponents often caricature this position as supporting Iran’s theocracy, but it’s simply smart strategy. Remaining in the JCPOA keeps Iran’s nuclear program in check, but nothing in the deal prevents the U.S. and allies from countering Iran in other areas, such as support for terrorism. And integrating Iran into the global economy strengthens the Iranian business community, empowering domestic actors who prefer cooperation over confrontation.

The United States pursued a containment strategy against the Soviet Union, which was more powerful than Iran. It worked. The regime collapsed on its own.

The United States pursued a forced regime change strategy in Iraq, which was less powerful than Iran. It didn’t work. An American-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein without much difficulty, but the subsequent occupation proved long and costly. And overthrowing Saddam destabilized the region, empowering Iran and opening a vacuum for ISIS.The smart strategy against Iran is containment. It increasingly looks like the Trump administration prefers war.

This article has been updated to account for John Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor.

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