Good news, everyone. The United States is eyeing regime change in the Middle East again. Luckily for us, this time President Donald Trump is the adult in the room keeping us from another comically expensive forever war in the region.
So, it sounds like we’re doomed.
In all sincerity though, last week The Washington Post reported that Trump told Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (who was recently nominated to fill the position on a permanent basis) that he did not want war with Iran. That statement marks a sharp departure from basically every other Iran-related headline in the last few weeks, all of which have pointed to escalating tensions and U.S. saber-rattling. So how did we get here?
Things have been simmering for a while now: the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (technically the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) just over a year ago in May 2018 destabilized what had previously been a relatively stable relationship. The designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization ratcheted things up even further.
But the pace of events has escalated seriously this month, starting on May 5 when the U.S. dispatched a carrier group and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf over what national security advisor John R. Bolton termed “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran. Then, on May 12, four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman — of Saudi, Emirati and Norwegian ownership — were sabotaged. U.S. officials reported that it was “highly likely” that Iran was responsible.
Since then, the State Department has partially evacuated the U.S. embassy and consulate in neighboring Iraq in response to an Iranian threat and reviewed military plans — including the deployment of as many as 120,000 troops (compared to the approximately 177,000 coalition troops for the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003) to the Middle East — for a conflict with the country. There's just one catch — according to a senior British general, the “new threat” from Iran is bullshit. And I quote: “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”
Since then, thankfully, it looks like tensions are cooling. Defense Secretary Shanahan said in an interview Monday that “we've put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans,” and members of Congress such as Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have taken action to head off any potential for conflict. Murphy was also part of this excellent Twitter thread on Iran along with fellow senator and Twitter savant Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
And that gets us back to where we started — Donald Trump, of all people, de-escalating U.S.-Iran tensions. At least, kind of. On Sunday, in a characteristic reversal, the president took to Twitter to threaten Iran: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” he said. “Never threaten the United States again!” Maybe we really are all doomed.
While the president continues to vacillate back and forth about whether he wants war with Iran or simply dinner with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, we should talk about John Bolton, who is central to everything that’s happened with Iran recently. Bolton, to put things lightly, is a terrifying person to have steering U.S. foreign policy in the White House and not just because his mustache looks like it’s about to achieve sentience and start fabricating intelligence reports.
As national security advisor to the president, Bolton has more influence on foreign policy decisionmaking than nearly any other member of the administration. That’s concerning because he’s also a regime change enthusiast and a fervent Iran hawk (and just a hawk in general). In 2015, he wrote an op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” and in February – on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran – he warned the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (not to be confused with this guy) that “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.” The short of it is this: nearly everything we talked about above can be laid at his feet. And maybe fellow Iran hawk and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo deserves some credit, too.
Before we go too much further though, let’s get one thing straight: John Bolton, for all his hawkishness, is a draft dodger. By his own admission, “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” That experience, however, has apparently not affected his willingness to send others to die in unwinnable foreign wars.
And now back to the main issue. Bolton spent quite a while auditioning for his new job on Fox News, but for the last year he’s been free from green room purgatory and back at the reigns of U.S. foreign policy. This is also his second White House stint – he served in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2006, both as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
While in the Bush 43 administration, Bolton acquired a reputation for playing fast and loose with intelligence reports and even basic facts, according to people who worked with him. That, combined with his involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, which was predicated on a completely false narrative about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, means that Bolton’s motives and justifications about anything involving Iran should be viewed with distinct suspicion.
Forever War 2.0
Now that we’ve gotten to know John Bolton a little bit better and talked through the last few weeks of U.S.-Iran shenanigans, where are we?
First and foremost, if it wasn’t obvious, a war with Iran would be very, very bad — likely far worse than the war in Iraq, which is now in its 16th year. We don’t have enough column inches to go into exactly why, but if you want to read more, The Washington Post has laid out plenty of reasons.
Second, tensions with Iran may have decreased in the short run, but John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are still making U.S. foreign policy, the Iran nuclear deal is still unraveling, and U.S. sanctions on Iran are still in place. None of the big-picture reasons for U.S.-Iran animosity have changed, and there’s not much to suggest that they will under this administration.
Lastly, that aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf? It’s still there, even as tensions seemingly are winding down again. On this, I’ll quote a NPR article from Tuesday: “the military situation in the Middle East is inherently unstable, and there are multiple potential flashpoints.” In other words, it’s a good thing that the immediate crisis appears to have been avoided, but don’t relax too much yet. As with everything these days, things in the Middle East could change quickly, and for the worse. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.