“To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” read the headline of a 2015 New York Times op-ed by now National Security Adviser John Bolton. Writing at the height of nuclear negotiations with Iran, Bolton argued that, “Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” Almost four years later, all of Iran’s potential pathways to a bomb remain blocked by the very deal Bolton would have traded for war. But like nonbiodegradable plastic adrift at sea, undeterred by the damage left in its wake, Bolton’s views haven’t changed.
On January 13, 2019, news broke that the National Security Council, at Bolton’s direction, asked the Pentagon for military strike options against Iran. The request was reportedly in response to a mortar attack launched in September 2018 by an Iraqi Shiite militia aligned with Iran that landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad, hitting an empty lot and causing no injuries or damage. In other words, Bolton asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for airstrikes over Iran that would start a catastrophic war — all in response to a militia attack with no victims.
Taken on its own, a thoughtful observer might characterize Bolton’s request as a gross overreaction from an overzealous national security adviser. But in the context of this administration’s policies and statements on Iran, it looks more like part of the plan.
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Let’s review the lowlights. In the first days of Trump’s presidency, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn ominously announced that the administration was “putting Iran on notice.” In May 2018, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement despite Iran’s verifiable compliance, and reimposed the full suite of US sanctions lifted under the agreement. Last July, Trump authored a late-night tweet threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formed the Iran Action Group, a special team tasked with coordinating the administration’s policies for countering the “Iranian threat.” Earlier this month, Pompeo started an eight-country tour through the Middle East emphasizing the need to counter “the greatest threat of all the Middle East, the Iranian regime.” Next month, the secretary of state is hosting a summit in Poland focused on “making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”
Trump has said he wants to negotiate a better nuclear deal, but his administration isn’t pursuing one, and even if it were, Iran has no interest in renegotiating the terms of a multilateral agreement that took years of painstaking and politically fraught negotiations to nail down. Trump has argued that sanctions will compel Iran to change its behavior, but sanctions have an abysmal track record at changing Iran’s calculus about what it sees as its core interests. For example, Iran steadily expanded its nuclear enrichment capabilities undeterred by the sanctions ramp-up during the Bush and Obama presidencies.
The growing network of Iran hawks in the administration is surely under no illusions that this latest pressure campaign will bear more fruit than the decades of threats and sanctions that came before it. But what other motive explains the Trump administration’s behavior? All of the administration’s posturing suggests that war is the endgame. Bolton’s request for strike options should leave no doubt in our minds.
If that’s not the case — if President Trump has no interest in a war with Iran — he should ask for Bolton’s resignation without delay seeing as Bolton’s interest in war is unimpeachable. If Trump does want a war, he needs to ask Congress to authorize it as the Constitution mandates.
Picking up on Trump’s general disregard for congressional war powers, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico introduced legislation last year prohibiting the use of funds for military action against Iran without congressional approval. Legislation like this may prove crucial in preventing a war with Iran, especially given the ever-expanding interpretations of presidential war powers espoused by this administration. If confirmed, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, could help expand those interpretations even further, as he tried to do in the lead-up to the Iraq War when he told President Bush that he had “no doubt” about the president’s authority to invade Iraq without congressional authorization.
However Congress moves to stop this march to war, it should move quickly. The administration’s actions suggest a strategy of provocation. Congress would be wise to sound the alarm and demand answers about the administration’s intentions before we find ourselves in another decades-long quagmire in the Middle East with quite imaginable consequences.