Donald Trump’s domestic troubles, combined with the current makeup of his foreign policy team, provide a confluence of circumstances, perhaps a perfect storm, to pull the United States into a war with Iran.
Indeed, the walls are closing in around Trump. The president’s poll numbers—once seemingly impervious to an already unprecedentedly tumultuous administration—are sinking, even among his most ardent supporters, as he increasingly boxes himself into the corner of a government shutdown for which the public says he’s largely responsible. At the same time, impeachment looms on the horizon. House Democratic committee chairs are winding up for some serious investigations into a whole range of alleged misdeeds by the president and some of his Cabinet appointments, and Robert Mueller is wrapping up his investigation into Trump’s highly questionable ties to Russia.
In short, Trump’s position has never been weaker. And despite what appears to be his personal desire to extract U.S. troops from the Middle East, as shown by his order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and his assertion two weeks later that Iran’s leaders “can do what they want” there, his deepening political problems may make war more attractive.
As Jim Lobe pointed out in September, Trump has previously signaled that a president could benefit politically by starting a war with Iran, as he predicted President Obama would do no less than half a dozen times between late 2011 and 2013 in order to win reelection or “show how tough he is.” At least back then, Trump correlated political redemption with war against Iran. And with what’s left of his domestic agenda on hold indefinitely due to the Democratic takeover of the House, Trump’s attention—as erratic as it is—is very likely to shift to foreign policy where he not only enjoys greater freedom of action but can also deflect attention from his disastrous presidency.
Bolton Increasingly in Charge?
At the same time, Trump’s top foreign policy advisers have been gunning for war with Iran for years. And the one Cabinet official largely responsible for pumping the brakes on military confrontation with Tehran throughout this administration, Defense Secretary James Mattis, is gone. With an interim enabler installed as acting Pentagon chief, there’s no permanent replacement in sight (although things could get much worse if Trump opts for Tom Cotton or Lindsey Graham).
According to recent reporting, Mattis helped quash a plan last fall—conjured up by National Security Advisor John Bolton—to retaliate militarily against an alleged Shiite militia mortar attack that landed harmlessly near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Indeed, the leaks that have come out of the Pentagon since Mattis’s departure strongly suggest that Bolton is looking for a pretext for an attack, even if Iranian forces are not directly involved. In the words of The New York Times’s headline editors, “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash With Iran.”
Mattis’s departure effectively removes from the leadership team a major obstacle to Bolton’s belief that the United States should take strong military action against Iran. Bolton was an unapologetic supporter of the war in Iraq and promoted false claims to make the case for the 2003 invasion. Bolton has since dedicated much of his career—even working closely and surreptitiously as UN ambassador with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and the Israelis—to prepare the grounds for war with Iran or promote regime change. And he isn’t shy about misleading the public to attain those goals. Earlier this month, for example, he claimed, without offering any evidence, that there is “little doubt” that Iran is committed to building a nuclear weapon, even though U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have made no such conclusions. In fact, both U.S. intel and the IAEA continue to find that Iran is adhering to the 2015 nuclear accord, of which Bolton gave Trump the final push to withdraw from last year.
That Bolton is perfectly capable of ignoring Trump’s own directives and preferences with respect to Middle East policy has already been made clear by what has happened since Trump called last month for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria within 30 days. Bolton publicly walked back Trump’s decision to withdraw, and Trump’s timeline to withdraw has already been extended to four to six months, according to the latest reports (and quite possibly longer in the wake of an attack in Manbij last week that killed three U.S. soldiers and one contractor).
An experienced bureaucratic operator, Bolton reportedly has centralized policy-making in his office, much to the annoyance of other agencies and Cabinet colleagues (notably Mattis). Given Trump’s attenuated attention span and lack of curiosity, Bolton has been steadily positioning himself to pursue his own highly ideological and anti-Iran agenda. Just in the last few weeks, Bolton has bolstered his staff with two Iran ultra-hardliners: Charles Kupperman as his deputy, and former Foundations for Defense of Democracies staffer Richard Goldberg to run point on Iran. Although he has not yet been officially appointed to the National Security Council (NSC) staff, David Wurmser, one of the intellectual architects of the Iraq War who worked closely with both Bolton and Cheney, is reportedly a frequent visitor.
Pompeo Not Much Better
But it’s not just Bolton. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a long-time Iran hawk who, prior to joining the administration, campaigned heavily in the House against the JCPOA in favor of hundreds of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Pompeo has taken point on the Trump administration’s public campaign to demonize Iran and lay the groundwork for war. As CIA director, Pompeo orchestrated a leak of documents intended to (baselessly) link Iran to al-Qaeda. At the State Department, he has delivered the most hardline anti-Iran speeches. In one last May, he insisted that Iran must accede to 12 demands, including halting all uranium enrichment and withdrawing “all forces under [its] command” in Syria before U.S. sanctions can be eased. He has repeated this ultimatum even though most Iran experts characterize it as totally unrealistic. During his widely panned Middle East tour earlier this month, in which he promised to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, Pompeo announced that he will cohost with Poland an Iran-bashing summit next month that top EU officials say they intend to boycott.
Pompeo may be somewhat more hesitant these days, now that he’s no longer a carefree congressman happy to engage in all kinds of provocations and freelance diplomacy with super-hawks like Cotton against the Obama administration’s efforts to conclude the nuclear deal with Iran. He actually has to take the sensitivities of foreign governments, such as Washington’s NATO partners (despite Trump’s trashing of same), into account. On the other hand, he has recently behaved pretty much like a bull in a china shop, evidenced by the bombing of his big policy speeches in Brussels, in Cairo, and quite probably next month in Warsaw.
Overall, Bolton and Pompeo’s hawkish rhetoric and anti-Iran activities have proliferated recently, particularly since Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign is failing to force Tehran to return to negotiations on Pompeo’s terms in order to avoid economic collapse and popular insurrection. Their increasingly aggressive stance, however, risks moving the two countries closer to a military confrontation.
The Role of Informal Advisers and Funders
Of course, Trump may choose not to listen to his Cabinet officials and instead seek advice from those who appear to enjoy relatively easy access to him. There’s Fox & Friends, for example, and Sean Hannity, who is probably even more belligerent than Bolton himself. What about Jared Kushner? His family’s long association with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi used to sleep in Jared’s bedroom), business ties in Israel, and support for the settlement movement on the West Bank—not to mention Jared’s efforts to eliminate all aid to Palestinian refugees everywhere and his steadfast support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)—suggest that he would not be unsympathetic to a massive show of U.S. force against Iran as part of his efforts to implement his much-anticipated Israel-Palestine “peace plan.”
Then there’s Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani who, like Bolton, has served as perhaps the most persistent booster of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a cultish group of anti-regime Iranian exiles formerly on the State Department’s list of terror organizations. Giuliani told an MEK rally in Paris last September that, “We are now realistically being able to see an end to the regime in Iran.”
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have become the biggest financial backers of the national Republican Party and appear to get Trump’s ear just about every time they want, especially regarding Israel and their personal financial interests. It was Sheldon who memorably called for the United States to drop a nuclear bomb in “in the middle of Tehran” if Iran refuses to give up its entire nuclear program after a demonstration bomb is detonated in “the middle of the [Iranian] desert.” There’s also billionaire financier Tom Barrack, who reportedly facilitated Trump’s love affair with the Gulf royals, particularly in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Although he’s very unlikely to endorse Adelson’s nuclear suggestion—the Gulf states would suffer a lot of fallout downwind—he may not object to military operations short of it. And then there’s Lindsey Graham who’s been bullish on the outcome of war with Iran.
Of course, Bolton and Pompeo’s aggressiveness may also be designed to provoke Iran itself to renounce the nuclear deal or at least to begin testing the its limits. Indeed, Iran’s adherence to the 2015 nuclear deal, as noted most recently in a comprehensive memo by the International Crisis Group, is increasingly under threat due to the growing stress felt in Tehran by the U.S.-imposed sanctions regime, the failure to date of the European Union to implement its plan for a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to enable Iran to reap at least some of the deal’s economic rewards, and the unrelenting hawkish rhetoric emanating from the Trump administration. That assessment leaves space for the administration to provoke a crisis, pushing Iran to ultimately withdraw from the nuclear deal and thus providing a pretext for military action.
With Trump in political trouble at home, Mattis out, and Bolton centralizing power in an increasingly hawkish NSC, certain foreign powers with a well-established interest in military conflict between the United States and Iran-–notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain—may see an unprecedented but transitory window for provocation. Indeed, like Trump, both Netanyahu and MbS are facing difficulties of their own and may be eager to create new distractions that could rally domestic opinion behind them.
Indeed, Israel has exhibited a new boldness in bombing suspected Iranian weapons sites in Syria. “Analysts have warned that Israel’s new openness [in publicly claiming responsibility for the strikes] could ratchet up tensions, making it harder for Iranian leaders to ignore attacks and pushing them to retaliate,” The New York Times reported this week. Netanyahu himself this week even mocked the head of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, in the aftermath of the latest Israeli attack, implicitly daring him to retaliate. There is also Bolton’s history of colluding with Israel to undermine official U.S. policy and his boss, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, any incident involving Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Bahrain on the other in and around the Gulf or off the coast of Yemen could quickly spiral out of control, drawing in U.S. forces. That Bolton asked for military options in response to a minor attack by a Shia militia that may not even have been supported—much less directed—by Iran suggests a very itchy finger on the trigger in both Syria and Iraq. And it was Trump himself who reportedly asked Mattis and the rest of his national-security team repeatedly why U.S. warships don’t sink Iranian fast boats, a somewhat disturbing echo of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. Misjudgments, bad or cooked intelligence, false flags—none of these should be discounted.
But it’s not just hostile states that are capable of and have an interest in staging an incident designed to escalate into a wider conflict between the United States and Iran. The MEK has long had an interest in provoking such a war. So have both al-Qaeda and the virulently anti-Iranian Islamic State. Hard-line rogue commanders in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could also decide to take matters into their own hands.
The potential of some kind of conflict with Iran escalating into a larger regional war is very real, possibly more real than ever. Although some have been sounding the alarm, the attention given to this dire situation is nowhere near the level it deserves. Given the national media’s ever-shifting focus on whatever shiny chaotic moment emerges from Trump and his administration, it’s possible that the United States could find itself in a new Middle East war without anyone really noticing it happen.