When the White House suddenly announced this past week that it was deploying a Navy carrier strike group and a bomber task force to send a message to Iran, it framed the decision as having a clear and urgent reason.
The announcement, issued Sunday night by national security adviser John Bolton, mentioned “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” about the Iranian regime. Over the next few days, a trickle of new information emerged in the media—but not much. A CNN report said U.S. officials had “specific and credible” intelligence suggesting that Iran and proxy forces were targeting American forces in the region; U.S. officials told NBC that Iran, in fact, had permitted those proxy forces to go after U.S. assets. Axios also reported that Israel had supplied the United States with some intelligence about an anti-U.S. Iranian plot in the Persian Gulf.
The Trump administration’s moves might be just saber-rattling, but they could easily propel the United States toward a military confrontation with Iran. And before that happens, Congress needs to move quickly to find out exactly what evidence is driving the Trump team’s decision-making, and just how reliable the intelligence is.
It is widely assumed that President Donald Trump himself does not want a shooting war with Iran; it raises serious electoral risks for him, and Trump is anti-interventionist by inclination. But he has never questioned the proposition of intervention as it applies to Iran, and he has made no effort to dispute the barrage of threats against Iran from his two hawkish chief national security advisers, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Given their past statements and maximal demands on Iran, it is reasonable to conclude that Bolton and Pompeo don’t intend to coerce Tehran into renegotiating its Obama-era nuclear accord with the United States and allies, or to change its regional behavior; neither man has shown any interest in serious diplomacy with Tehran, and Bolton is preternaturally opposed to negotiating arms control agreements. Rather, Bolton and Pompeo seem to want to change the regime, by goading Iran into giving the United States a pretext to use military force to accomplish that goal.
Bolton’s militancy is legendary, and he has long had an itchy trigger finger when it comes to the Iranian regime in particular, which he would like to relegate to the dustbin of history. In a recent New Yorker profile, he is depicted as working on a compressed schedule out of fear that, at some point, the president will judge he has gone too far on Iran and fire him. Others in the White House told the New Yorker that Bolton’s worst fear is that the Iranians will approach Trump directly to negotiate a new nuclear deal, depriving Bolton of an opportunity to get rid of the Iranian regime. The national security adviser also has a well-known history of manipulating and distorting intelligence to suit his policy agenda. Pompeo, who favors regime change as well, recently testified to Congress that Iran maintains ties with al-Qaida—without providing evidence—and implied that the administration could, therefore, take military action under the same authorization that has allowed the United States to use military force against the Islamic State since 2014.
Other than Bolton’s statement, however, the Trump administration has presented very little information publicly about the intelligence underlying its current Iranian threat assessment—which is where Congress comes in. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration pressed the baseless claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaida and even reorganized the intelligence community in an effort to generate evidence. Congress voted to authorize military action on the basis of that evidence—much of it faulty—which led to a disastrous and prolonged war. In that episode, the nation was still reeling from the September 11 attacks; Congress and the public were willing to follow George W. Bush wherever he led them. In retrospect, Congress’ acceptance of the administration’s false claims was understandable. This time around, Congress must exercise its constitutional responsibilities and insist that the administration share its intelligence.
Iranian threats to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and the region more broadly are not implausible, given Iran’s history of deadly attacks in the past. In 1983, Iranian proxies destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing many U.S. intelligence officers (and Lebanese civilians), and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing hundreds of U.S. troops. In 1996, Iran destroyed the U.S. Air Force barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing dozens of troops. During the Iraq War, Iranian allies tormented U.S. soldiers with explosively formed penetrators, killing many and leaving others with incapacitating head injuries and missing limbs. In response to the Trump administration’s recent designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the Iranian government last month designated all U.S. military personnel in the Middle East as terrorists. Iran is clearly capable of attacking U.S. troops, and in the context of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and his administration’s scorched-earth sanctions policy, Iran presumably has the motivation to do so again. With Iranian and U.S. forces co-located in Iraq and Syria and rubbing elbows with Iranian populations in Dubai and Bahrain, Iran has opportunity, as well as motive.
With the draconian sanctions it has imposed on Iran, the Trump administration, for all intents and purposes, has declared its intention to bring down the Iranian regime. The United States would be foolish not to believe that Iran, in response, has drawn up plans to attack U.S. targets within reach of Iranian forces or proxies, and thus to defend itself against U.S. efforts to topple the regime.
Still, it would be equally foolish for Iran to act on these plans and launch preemptive military attacks against U.S. interests, by itself or using proxies. A move like that would play into the administration’s game, giving the United States the casus belli it seeks to use massive force against the regime. Tehran seems to be alive to this risk. The Iranian government’s recent announcement that it will suspend its compliance with some provisions of the nuclear accord is a judicious move intended to remain below the threshold that might trigger a U.S. (or Israeli) military response.
The American public and, more important, Congress must be very careful in interpreting the intelligence that has prompted the Trump administration’s recent moves. If the administration is relying on Israeli intelligence—which has on occasion proved to be good—it should nonetheless be scrutinized carefully. This is not just because Israel’s approach to interpreting intelligence can be less cautious than is typical in the U.S. system, but also because the Israeli leadership has a profound perceived interest in pulling the United States into a war with Iran.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, if anything, even more eager than Bolton and Pompeo to topple the Iranian regime. He—if not most Israeli professional intelligence and military analysts—believes Iran’s leadership is irrationally committed to Israel’s destruction, whatever the cost. From this perspective, even Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons capability could not deter an Iranian nuclear attack intended to bring about a second Holocaust. Although Israel has the ability to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it cannot do so without using most of its air force in a highly risky operation that would be so large and hazardous, that it would be difficult to repeat. On the other hand, the United States could take out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure without breaking much of a sweat.
There are conceivable circumstances under which virtually any U.S. administration would go to war with Iran, as the Obama administration threatened to do if the clerical regime produced a nuclear weapon. But ever since the emergence of the Iranian regime in 1979, prudent restraint has characterized U.S. policy. Even if the Trump administration’s plan is to draw Iranian blood in a limited, symbolic attack, Iran would likely interpret such a strike as the opening salvo of a broader U.S. assault on Iran and the regime’s control of the country. The resulting escalation and the possibility of a drastic departure from 50 years of U.S. policy toward revolutionary Iran make it absolutely essential that Congress take this moment seriously.
With the Trump administration’s track record, no one should rely on its appeals to “trust us, we know what we’re doing.” The administration has already inflicted great damage on the system of checks and balances that undergirds America’s democratic institutions and the rule of law. Allowing the administration to barrel down the path toward war with Iran without demanding to see the intelligence would constitute a massive congressional failure—an abdication of its constitutional responsibility on matters of war and peace.