In 1991, the United States fought Iraq to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. After Operation Desert Storm ended, the United Nations Special Commission conducted extensive investigations and declared that there was no evidence that Iraq still had biological weapons program. American Iraq policy officially became “containment.”
Iraq’s murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein resisted all attempts by the West to democratize his country, and in 2001, the Bush Administration made regime change a priority; Under-Secretary of State for arms control, John Bolton, with no supporting evidence from American intelligence agencies, insisted that Iraq was still producing weapons of mass destruction. His claims were a significant factor in pushing the United States into the disastrous 2003 Iraq War. A year later, the Senate Select Committee on Pre-War Intelligence on Iraq found that there was no intelligence for Iraq having or developing WMD. The final report stated the Bush administration “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed."
The bellicose Bolton is now President Trump’s senior foreign policy advisor. He is joined by another hard-liner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, known for his support of Saudi Arabia’s ruthless crown prince, Mohamed Bin Salman; he is on record as disputing the CIA’s assessment that MBS ordered the Khashoggi assassination. These two advisors have pushed a willing Trump administration to apply “maximum pressure” on Saudi Arabia’s greatest enemy, Iran, in an attempt to force the Iranian regime to it knees. There is no doubt that Trump’s draconian sanctions have harmed Iran’s economy and are forcing a humanitarian crisis there. Expanded sanctions began when, over the objection of our allies, the president unilaterally removed the United States from the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear treaty. Critics of Trump’s actions claimed that turning the screws on Iran would not achieve his goal but would serve only to strengthen Iran’s hard-liners and increase the threat that they would use terrorist organizations like Hezbollah to attack Israel or American interests in the Mideast.
Last week, two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman off Iran’s west coast. The president said he has evidence that Iran was responsible for the attacks. Iran denies that its government had anything to do with them. In fact, the tankers were transporting oil to Japan while Japanese Prime Minister Abe was in Tehran. It’s unlikely that the Ayatollahs would order the attack with Abe there, ironically trying to reduce tensions between Iran and America. It’s possible that the attacks are the work of rogue elements in the Iranian Revolutionary National Guard, whose patrol boats were observed in the vicinity of one of the tankers. Whether it’s the Iranian government or some other Iranian entity that staged the attacks, the fact is that we are facing a crisis in the Middle East, one that could explode into a shooting war.
It’s hard to see how a diplomatic solution to that crisis is possible. Iran’s hard-liners will use the administration’s history of pulling out of the nuclear treaty to resist any attempts to negotiate safe passage of oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, and we’ve seen that the people who have the president’s ear don’t favor a win-win if it means Iran would benefit in any way. In other words, it appears that both sides have parties not particularly inclined to negotiate their ways out of confrontation. Would the president accept United Nations intervention? Would the Iranians?
If there’s no diplomatic out, some form of increased American military presence in the Gulf of Oman is sure to occur, and with it, increased chances of direct military contact between Iran and the United States. The president said he doesn’t want war with Iran. What steps can he take to avoid one?
Iran knows it cannot stand up to American military superiority. That means they would most likely respond to increased pressure with some form of terrorism, attacking American interests through third parties — Hezbollah, for example — in Europe or Israel, which has its own problems at the moment. Another possibility is that Iran or its IRNG would just lay low for a few months and return to threatening shipping when they think they can get away with it.
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None of these alternatives is satisfactory. The Trump administration believed that its maximum pressure policy would provoke internal dissent in Iran and lead to regime change. That will not happen. If the president truly wishes to avoid military action, he needs to offer the Iranians some inducements to change their behavior and demonstrate that this time, his word is good.