During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002, Newsweek reported on the Bush administration’s plans to bring about wholesale regime change across the Middle East and beyond. While notions of toppling the Saudi monarchy, ousting then–Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and attacking North Korea were kicked around the D.C. foreign policy community, with varying levels of resistance to each, there was one idea that found wider support than the rest — invading Iran. As a “senior British official” told Newsweek at the time, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”
That “everyone’s” desire to go to Baghdad turned out to be catastrophically wrong-headed has not diminished that dream of a “peance freeance secure” Iran (as George Bush memorably said of Iraq), at least not among the more hawkish DC foreign policy types. And really, the US fixation on regime change in Iran long predates the Bush administration. That drive started in earnest the day a group of Iranian students burst into the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, sparking the 444-day-long Iran hostage crisis. It’s waxed and waned in the decades since, but it’s never entirely disappeared. At the moment, it is definitely waxing, with Donald Trump last night apparently ordering, and then retracting, a strike against Iran.
US hawks are newly energized over two recent attacks on tankers in waters around the vital Strait of Hormuz and the shooting down of a US surveillance drone that allegedly entered Iranian airspace. On May 12, four oil tankers were damaged by what officials from the United Arab Emirates called “sabotage” off the coast of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. Reports of damage varied from ship to ship, but all four vessels survived, there were no casualties, and no major oil spills as a result. The Trump administration concluded, without explaining how, that Iran was responsible, and an investigation led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE — Tehran’s two main regional adversaries — concluded that a “state actor” had perpetrated the attacks. That investigation didn’t point the finger directly at Iran, but the implication was unmistakable.
Lightning struck for the second time roughly a month later. On June 13, two more tankers were attacked, again in the Gulf of Oman, though this time closer to the Iranian coast. The apparent method of this second round of attacks mirrored the first — small explosions just above the water line (so as not to sink the ships), probably (so the story goes) caused by magnetic limpet mines.
In the wake of the second tanker attack, the US again rushed to blame Iran. This time, US officials claimed to have proof, in the form of a grainy, very decontextualized video purporting to show an Iranian boat removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the tankers. Later they argued that fragments of the mines allegedly used in the attack match limpet mines that the Iranian military employs. Donald Trump insisted that the second tanker attack had “Iran written all over it,” while his Pentagon began considering additional deployments to the Persian Gulf (it eventually decided to send a thousand more troops to the region).
With tensions from this second attack still running high, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced yesterday that its forces had shot down a US surveillance drone in Iranian airspace off the coast of Hormozgan province. US officials countered that the drone was in international airspace. If the drone did penetrate Iranian airspace then Iranian forces would have been justified under international law in firing upon it, but it may be impossible to determine that for certain — and the question may not matter since the US is already acting from the position that the drone did not. US and Iranian officials traded accusations of recklessness over the incident.
So far Trump’s evidence, such as it is, hasn’t convinced many US allies that Iran was responsible for these attacks. Both the Japanese and German governments have said that they’ll need more information before drawing a conclusion. (The president of the Japanese company that owns one of the tankers injected additional uncertainty into the case when he said that the crew saw “flying objects” attack the vessel, which would seem to rule out mines altogether.)
Thus far, only two governments have joined the Trump administration in unambiguously pinning the blame on Iran: Saudi Arabia, which is openly hostile toward Iran anyway, and the United Kingdom, which tends to follow the US in lockstep and which is especially reluctant at the moment to alienate Washington amid a very messy departure from the European Union.
It’s clear that the Iranians shot down the drone, but did they attack the tankers? On one hand, the question is also rapidly losing relevance — the United States says they did and may be preparing to act on that claim.
Yet if Iran is responsible, it acted in direct response to the Trump administration’s belligerence. Never a fan of the 2015 accord — under which Iran agreed to accept restrictions on its nuclear power program in exchange for relief from United States and international sanctions — Trump announced last year that he was pulling out of the deal and re-imposing sanctions.
Iran had to that point fully complied with the nuclear agreement, but found itself facing a new US sanctions campaign, dubbed “maximum pressure” by Trump and his national security team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. While insisting that they weren’t looking to repeat the Iraq War in Iran, Trump and his team promised that the new sanctions regime would bring the Iranian government to its knees, or at least back to the negotiating table to discuss a new, wider-ranging accord that would address issues like Iran’s missile program and its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
The sanctions have undoubtedly hammered Iran’s economy (creating more devastation than the six bombings and the drone incident combined), but so far they seem to have only strengthened Tehran’s resolve not to engage diplomatically with the United States. It’s possible that resolve is a bluff and that, as the economic pressure mounts, the Iranians will eventually have no choice but to talk. But the Trump administration has crafted a policy that’s all stick, no carrot, and as a result it hasn’t opened a path for the Iranians to engage in dialogue without appearing to have capitulated. And having already watched the United States renege on one agreement, Iran has little reason to believe that Washington would negotiate a second, even broader, agreement in good faith.
Tehran’s initial reaction to the renewal of US sanctions was to lay low and try to wait out the Trump administration. But faced with a crumbling economy and the chance that Trump could be reelected next fall, in recent weeks the Iranians have been more strident in their demands of the accord’s remaining signatories (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom). They’ve threatened to reduce their compliance with several of the agreement’s restrictions, and now appear to be about to follow through on some of those threats, unless the other parties to the deal find a way to protect Iranian commerce from sanctions. The United States has called Iran’s move to reduce compliance (with a deal that Washington has already scrapped) “nuclear blackmail,” and European officials have warned that any rash moves by the Iranians could cost them international goodwill. But international goodwill hasn’t benefited the Iranians in any observable way, as European leaders seem powerless to counter US sanctions and unwilling to risk antagonizing Trump.
In that context, the Iranians may well have decided that the time has come to make a stronger statement, one that both expresses displeasure with Trump’s pressure campaign and hints at Iran’s ability to cause even more trouble without going too far and provoking a conflict. Assuming that the limpet mine theory is the correct one, these attacks were obviously calibrated to send a message rather than cause serious damage (recall, for example, that the mines were placed above the water line to avoid sinking the tankers), and the Iranian navy is one of the few actors in the region capable of carrying out such an operation.
The similarities with the build-up to the Iraq War are unmistakable. Iran has been a target for US hawks for years, as Iraq was. Here, as there, a US administration appears to be manufacturing a pretext for war. Just in the past couple of months we’ve seen Bolton (whose presence at the center of events is itself a callback to Iraq) creating a frenzy over unspecified, and probably overhyped, Iranian “threats.” Pompeo has even claimed Iran is responsible for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, a charge that would be laughable if it didn’t look so ominously like an attempt (one of many) to pre-authorize a war with Iran under the heavily abused 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and thereby evade congressional oversight.
There is one big difference between the current situation and lead-up to the to the Iraq War: Donald Trump. Trump has made his reluctance for a major military conflict fairly clear since running against Jeb Bush and the Iraq War’s legacy in the 2016 Republican primary, and he’s reportedly hearing from some of his friends on television that he should steer clear of a war with Iran. He’s also shown a tendency to claim that he’s solved great international problems (sometimes of his own making) without anything having actually changed.
He’s done that with North Korea, and now seems to be doing it with Iran. He’s seemed to minimize the repercussions both of the tanker attacks and the drone incident, even suggesting that the latter was likely a “mistake” made by a “general or somebody.” To go to war now would be to admit that the “maximum pressure” campaign has failed, and it’s doubtful Trump’s ego could accommodate that.
If there is a risk of war it comes primarily from Trump’s senior advisers. Bolton’s record makes it clear that he’s angling for a war, and Pompeo — though more politic about it — seems similarly inclined. Trump has reportedly begun ordering them and his other senior advisers to rein in their rhetoric on Iran. But it’s possible that someone, perhaps Bolton, could convince Trump that Iran’s recent actions warrant not a full-blown war but a limited military strike. Trump has shown a willingness to undertake those — indeed, he almost did last night — and the US media has praised him for it.
A “one-off” strike against Iran could easily snowball into a larger conflict. And a war with Iran — which is larger, better prepared, and enjoys wider regional support than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — would make the Iraq War’s catastrophe look quaint by comparison.