The United States is now making a show of military force in the region, sending an aircraft carrier and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf and announcing the deployment of a thousand more troops. It has been devising plans to send as many as 120,000 troops in the event of hostilities, a conflict it appears to be itching for. Much of this seems traceable to Trump’s notoriously hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, who has openly advocated regime change in Iran—whether by using sanctions to create such abysmal conditions that Iranian citizens revolt, or through military intervention. Bolton also has a history of manipulating intelligence to justify the use of force. In response to American actions, Iran now says it will abandon the nuclear deal unless European nations help reduce the impact of sanctions. The Iranian government has already increased the production of low-enriched uranium, typically used in power plants, but it is also threatening to begin production of higher-enriched uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon.
While the administration continues to call for greater international pressure on Iran, many European leaders are urging restraint on the part of both countries. Having learned the lessons of the war in Iraq, they do not want to be drawn into another conflict built on lies and exaggeration. The United States should understand that, this time around, there will be no “coalition of the willing.” Iran retains the support of China and Russia, two countries that, unlike Iran, do have the ability to inflict grave harm on the United States. The situation is made infinitely more dangerous by Trump’s weakness as a leader. While his wariness about starting another war in the Middle East sometimes translates into a reduction of military force, as it did when he announced the withdrawal of troops from Syria in December, he also appears susceptible to the influence of the warmongering Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It’s all too easy to imagine a suggestible, insecure president going to war to draw attention from congressional investigations and polls that show him faring poorly in the 2020 election against potential Democratic rivals.
A conflict with Iran is entirely avoidable. The United States should stop issuing threats and baiting Iran’s leaders and instead work with allies to find a diplomatic solution. It’s also important to recall that Congress, not the president, is constitutionally charged with making decisions about when and where to go to war. This magazine has argued before that, to reassert its role in foreign policy, Congress must vote to end the eighteen-year-old Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that granted the Bush administration war-making powers after 9/11 and was abused by the Obama administration in justifying military action in Syria and elsewhere. Pompeo has hinted the same AUMF could be used to launch a war against Iran. That would be not only illegal, but also potentially disastrous for a region already in turmoil thanks to decades of misguided U.S. policy and military action. This crisis is largely one of the Trump administration’s own making. As of this writing, the president and his advisors still have the opportunity to steer away from the collision course they have set.
June 19, 2019