Is it Iraq all over again? Is President Donald Trump, egged on by two ultra-hawkish advisers in National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seeking to launch an illegal, unauthorized war against a country in the Middle East after demonizing its leaders and making bogus charges about weapons of mass destruction? Just as President George W. Bush, led on by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, invaded Iraq using false charges that Baghdad had a secret stash of nuclear and chemical arms, over the past few weeks the White House has taken a series of provocative, unwarranted steps that have brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war.
That’s the conclusion of two Democratic senators, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Dick Durbin of Illinois, who were alarmed enough to write an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which they warned, “Sixteen years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we are again barreling toward another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East based on faulty and misleading logic.”
And as Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, Tehran is convinced that what he calls “the B Team”—Bolton, Bibi, bin Salman, and bin Zayed, the last three being Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates—are determined to force regime change in Iran. “President Trump says that the pressure will bring Iran to its knees,” said Zarif.
“The other day, Secretary Pompeo was asked if he was planning a coup d’état in Iran. And you know what he said? Any diplomat, even if they’re planning a coup, would deny it! But he said, if I were planning a coup, I wouldn’t tell you. Sometimes people say what’s in the back of their mind,” Zarif added. (The exact quote, according to Axios, came in a speech by Pompeo to an Iranian-American group, in which he said, “Even if we [were], would I be telling you guys about it?”)
This week, Bolton announced that the United States was dispatching an aircraft-carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East, coupling it with bellicose language about sending “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime” and threatening “unrelenting force.” That unprovoked action follows a yearlong campaign of threats and intimidation aimed at Iran, after the administration’s withdrawal one year ago from the 2015 six-power nuclear accord signed by President Barack Obama. Since then, the United States has instituted tough new sanctions aimed at crippling Iran’s economy and cutting off its oil exports.
Over the past few weeks, the campaign of threats and what the White House calls “maximum pressure” has intensified. On April 8, in a highly provocative action, the State Department announced that it was labeling Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Tehran’s main military arm—a terrorist group. Just as Bush manufactured false charges that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11, the Trump administration is painting the Iranian nation as a terrorist threat. “The IRGC will be added to the State Department’s FTO [foreign terrorist organization] list, which includes 67 other terrorist organizations including Hizballah, Hamas, [and] Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” read the announcement. “The IRGC FTO designation highlights that Iran is an outlaw regime that uses terrorism as a key tool of statecraft.” Never before in the two-decade history of the State Department’s terrorist listing has an entire nation’s armed forces been designated as an FTO. (You can read the whole declaration here.)
On April 22, the White House, accusing Iran of “spread[ing] mayhem across the Middle East,” announced that the United States was putting an end to the sanction waivers that allowed countries such as India, Turkey, and China to import oil from Iran, “intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero”—in other words, strangling the country’s lifeline. In its statement, the White House stressed that the United States, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—two of Iran’s regional enemies—would guarantee that whatever oil is lost from Iran would be made up by them. (You can read the statement here.)
Finally, just before announcing that it was sending the aircraft carrier and bomber wing to the Gulf, on May 3 the administration took a stunning new step aimed directly at the heart of the Iran nuclear accord, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). No longer, the White House said, would the United States permit Iran to enrich uranium or to “transfer enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for natural uranium.” Both activities, along with many other provisions in the JCPOA, were explicitly tolerated under that accord. (You can read the State Department’s declaration here.) By its action, the United States is threatening to either force Iran to shut down its limited and highly regulated uranium-enrichment program or to disregard those provisions of the JCPOA and move toward an unchecked enrichment regime. According to the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, that’s exactly what Iran might do: “enrichment at any volume and level.”
Zarif, in a meeting with a small group of reporters on April 25, including one from The Nation, warned that Iran might withdraw from the JCPOA if it is pushed into a corner. “The nuclear deal has not produced any positive outcome,” he said. “So we will decide, the Iranian people will decide, about the future of this engagement. They have lost hope. They have lost faith in the utility of international engagement. And that is alarming.” Needless to say, were Iran to pull out of the JCPOA in response to Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo’s provocations or were it to resume unlimited enrichment of uranium, it would trigger an unrelenting series of war cries from “the B Team”: the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. And the military option—that is, military strikes on the dozens of Iranian scientific and research facilities devoted to its nuclear program—would be back on the table.
By attempting to choke Iran’s economy, by designating the IRGC as a terrorist group, by targeting Iran’s legal enrichment program, and by making overt military threats, the United States is at once weakening the reform-minded and moderate forces in Iran, including Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, and strengthening hard-liners—Iran’s own Boltons—including its ultraconservative clerics and some members of the IRGC, many of whom opposed the 2015 nuclear accord as too accommodating to the United States. Just last month, in what could be an ominous turn, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ousted the commander of the IRGC and named a new chief, a tough-minded veteran. The new commander, Hossein Salami, said as recently as February, “The whole world should know that when we talk about martyrdom, it does not mean that we stand still so that the enemy attacks us and kills us. If the enemy opts for a war, we will become fully offensive.”
Zarif is well aware that the United States might be seeking a pretext for war. In late April, at a meeting in New York with the Asia Society, he said, “It is not a crisis yet, but it is a dangerous situation. Accidents…are possible. I wouldn’t discount the B Team plotting an accident anywhere in the region, particularly as we get closer to the election.” Indeed, in announcing the deployment of the aircraft-carrier group to the Gulf, Washington warned that it was acting on intelligence that Iran or its proxies and allies—possibly Hezbollah, members of pro-Iran militias in Iraq, or others—were planning to attack US military forces or other US interests in the Middle East. That information, unconfirmed, reportedly was passed on to the United States by Israeli intelligence, according to Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13. “Israel passed information on an alleged Iranian plot to attack U.S. interests in the Gulf to the U.S. before National Security Adviser John Bolton threatened Iran with ‘unrelenting force’ last night, senior Israeli officials told me,” said Ravid. Presumably, an attack on US forces anywhere in the region, even if it could only remotely be attributed to Iran, would give Bolton a reason to activate his threat of unleashing “unrelenting force.”
Anything, even Iran’s legitimate military activities, could provide Bolton with an excuse to go to war. According to a New Yorker profile of Bolton, as far back as last November he seemed to advocate bombing a missile test site in Iran after the country test-fired a medium-range missile.
All of this puts the conflict between the United States and Iran on a hair trigger. And it gives extremists, including independent actors, the ability to try to provoke a US-Iran war by, say, assassinating a US military officer or firing rockets into an American compound—even if Tehran has nothing to do with it.
Worryingly, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and ally of Zarif and Rouhani, Hossein Mousavian, wrote recently not only that Iran might pull out of the JCPOA but also that it might leave the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), citing a recent statement from Zarif. Addressing IRIB, the Iranian state broadcaster, Zarif argued that one of Iran’s options in response to Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo might be to quit the NPT, saying, “The Islamic Republic’s choices are numerous, and the country’s authorities are considering them…and leaving [the] NPT is one of them.” And as Mousavian pointed out, were Iran to leave the JCPOA or the NPT or both, “the US-Israel axis would launch a heavy political propaganda campaign claiming that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the peace and security of the world.”
As Zarif made clear, Iran’s leaving the JCPOA can’t be ruled out, especially if hard-liners in Tehran get the upper hand. Despite the intense pressure being put on Iran, including the overt threat of regime change, Rouhani, Zarif, and even Khamenei are likely to try to avoid giving Washington the pretext it may be seeking to escalate the conflict. To get around the sanctions, Zarif and his team are likely to draw closer to China and Russia. “Our relations with Russia are better than at any time in the past,” Zarif said. Iran is also asking the Europeans to step up their resistance to America’s bullying. According to IRNA, the Iranian news agency, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi recently warned Europe that Iran’s patience is limited and that the European Union must not succumb to American efforts to shut down trade with Iran. “We have given enough time to make up for repercussions of the US withdrawal from the deal and now the time has come for action. We welcome the EU political stances, but political supports are not solely enough to save the deal,” he said.