Egged on by the ultra-hawkish duo of John Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, President Donald Trump has brought US-Iranian relations to the brink of war. Like the war against Iraq in 2003, launched on the pretext of spurious charges about nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, the crisis with Iran is a manufactured one. And were it to occur, a war between the United States and Iran would have incalculable consequences—for Iran’s civilian population, for the entire region, and for the world’s economy, still dependent for a third of its oil on shipments from the Persian Gulf. It is a war that the American people, its representatives in Congress, America’s allies, and the United Nations cannot allow to happen.
There should be no mistaking White House intentions. In May, Washington reinforced its already overwhelming military presence in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia by dispatching an aircraft carrier, a B-52 bomber force, a Patriot missile battery, and other assets to the region, threatening Iran with “unrelenting force” while issuing unproven and highly questionable charges that Iran and its “proxies” may be about to attack US forces. Underscoring the threat, Bolton reportedly demanded that the Pentagon provide him with an option to dispatch 120,000 troops to the region. Those unprovoked actions followed draconian new economic sanctions that, Pompeo said, would bring Iran’s oil exports to zero, and an announcement that Washington was ending waivers that allow countries such as India, Turkey, and Japan to buy Iranian oil. The new sanctions also target Iran’s exports of steel and other metals. And in an utterly unprecedented action, the State Department designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its main military force, as a terrorist organization while ratcheting up recent US rhetoric claiming Iran is an “outlaw regime” that uses “terrorism as a tool of statecraft” while “spread[ing] mayhem across the Middle East.”
As if that were not enough, on May 3 the administration took a momentous step aimed directly at the heart of the Iran nuclear accord, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. No longer, the White House said, would the United States permit Iran to enrich uranium or “transfer enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for natural uranium.” Both of these activities were explicitly allowed under the JCPOA, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015.
In response, Iran declared that it would no longer abide by some of the provisions of the now-crippled JCPOA. And Tehran gave an ultimatum of sorts to the Europeans: Either help break US economic sanctions within 60 days, or Iran may cancel the main provisions of the accord and resume producing highly enriched uranium. “The nuclear deal has not produced any positive outcome,” Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told The Nation in a meeting with a small group of reporters at the end of April. “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.” The entire edifice of the six-power agreement with Iran may be about to crumble. For Trump-administration hawks, that puts their cherished military option back on the table.
One spark—a rogue militia attack on US forces in Iraq, a battle involving Iran-allied forces in Syria or Lebanon, an incident in the Persian Gulf—could set off the conflagration that Trump’s advisers seem to want.
Who else wants war? It isn’t just Bolton, who has advocated war with Iran for many years. Joining Bolton on what Zarif calls the “B Team” are Bibi, bin Salman, and bin Zayed (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates). Together, they represent Trump’s Coalition of the Killing.
With Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan already plagued by conflicts, a war with Iran would destabilize virtually all of southwestern Asia, sending each of those ongoing wars into higher gear and prompting Iran to strike back at US, Saudi, and Israeli interests in the region. Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia, a leading ally of Iran, could launch its vast arsenal of upgraded missiles into Israel. Iran could strike Saudi Arabia’s oil and petrochemical complexes and try to shut down Persian Gulf oil exports. And knocking out Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no simple operation. A former US intelligence official once described to me the Pentagon’s classified plans for attacking Iran: fully six to eight weeks of heavy bombing sorties and missile strikes, with many civilian deaths, including two weeks aimed at crippling Iran’s air defenses and command-and-control centers, followed by continuous and repeated strikes at more than four dozen Iranian facilities involved in nuclear and scientific research.
At home, even an unprovoked (and widely condemned) war against Iran could set off an explosion of MAGA-style jingoism among Trump’s supporters. The rally-round-the-flag effect that usually accompanies US overseas adventures could be used to suppress dissent, intimidate anti-war forces, and provide an opening for the administration to suppress civil liberties. An election season that should be about the president’s misrule—one that could bring to power a progressive coalition supporting economic and social justice—could be swamped by war fever. And the military-industrial complex, already getting fat on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states, would clamor for even greater largesse, beyond the more than $1 trillion it will already pocket in the next year.
That’s why it’s critical that the American people, members of Congress, and especially the Democrats seeking to replace Trump in 2020 speak out forcefully against this war fever. In response to the recent dangerous White House actions, Senator Bernie Sanders warned that Trump has “isolated the US from its closest allies and put us on a dangerous path to conflict.” Senator Angus King of Maine noted that Bolton has already proclaimed his intent to “celebrat[e] in the streets of Tehran.” And Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Dick Durbin of Illinois warned in a Washington Post op-ed, “We are again barreling toward another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East based on faulty and misleading logic.” Warnings, of course, are appropriate. But they must be louder and more insistent. And Congress, as it unsuccessfully tried to do in regard to US support for the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen, must stand up to claim its authority over war and peace.