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With Bolton, Pompeo and Trump in the Picture, All Bets Are Off on Iran

Trump himself may seem unclear on the fundamental details, but war with Iran is a real possibility.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boards a plane before departing from London Stansted Airport, on May 9, 2019.

If you’re worried about the U.S. initiating a shooting war with Iran, you should be, though not really, but definitely maybe, or not. As with everything else involving Donald Trump and the intentions of his administration, attempting to figure out exactly what they are up to is a lot like trying to stare into the bottom of a mud puddle.

Last week’s attacks on two Japanese-owned oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were a lit match beside a large barrel of kerosene. The Trump administration had already pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal despite the fact that Iran was in compliance with its strictures. The tensions rose further when it was announced that a U.S. carrier strike group would be steaming into the Gulf. The administration then announced troop buildups in the region and ordered most non-essential U.S. personnel out of Iraq, a move that is generally viewed as a precursor to war.

When the tankers were attacked, the Trump administration leaped to blame Iran, using murky video footage as proof along with other “intelligence” that officials refused to share. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran trying to mediate between Iran and the U.S. amid deteriorating relations when the attacks took place. It makes little sense for Iran to attack Japanese vessels while that nation’s prime minister is in the country.

People directly involved with the attacked tankers have cast deep doubt on the Trump administration’s “evidence” of Iranian complicity in the attack. The U.S. has claimed the ships were attacked with torpedoes or limpet mines, but the captain of one of the ships claims his crew saw his ship attacked by “flying objects.” Yutaka Katada, president of the company that owns one of the tankers, said, “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”

The incredulity in Japan goes well beyond the tanker company. “The U.S. explanation has not helped us go beyond speculation,” said one Japanese government official on Sunday. “There is not definite proof that it’s Iran. Even if it’s the United States that makes the assertion, we cannot simply say we believe it,” said a source close to the prime minister.

In Europe, it appears only Great Britain is standing with Donald Trump in support of the accusations against Iran. A number of European Union ministers have balked against lining up with the United States. “There was strong support among EU countries for an independent UN investigation and calls for more evidence,” reports The Independent. “One foreign minister invoked the spectre of US misuse of intelligence over Iraq as a reason for scepticism.”

Notably, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia has sided with the U.S. against Iran amid the rising tensions. The move comes after King Salman of Saudi Arabia convinced the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and 21 Arab League nations to publicly denounce Iran’s behavior in the region weeks before the attacks on the tankers. This stance is part of a years-long power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has spilled over into vicious proxy wars in countries such as Syria and Yemen.

While the WMD lies perpetrated by George W. Bush and his administration to justify the invasion of Iraq certainly continue to resonate throughout world governments, Trump himself is also, no doubt, a factor in the hesitation of longtime allies to back his dubious claims against Iran.

Trump has spent his entire presidency trashing those alliances, flinging damaging tariffs into the wind with no regard for their impact, and undercutting his own intelligence services whenever it suits his political needs. That everyone is suddenly supposed to accept the fuzzy word of those services is proving, for many, to be a bridge too far.

Donald Trump is also a proven, documented serial liar. The Washington Post, which volunteered for the unenviable task of tracking those lies, has nailed down close to 11,000 “known falsehoods” Trump has offered since taking office.

“For two and a half years in office,” writes Peter Baker for The New York Times, “Mr. Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said ‘he’s a liar’ and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.”

In other words, actions have consequences. Trump’s nonexistent relationship with the truth, when combined with the fact that ginning up an international confrontation to provide political cover is straight out of the 21st century Republican playbook, makes Trump’s road to any sort of war-making alliances extremely uncertain. For the moment, it would appear his ham-fisted fabulism is throwing up roadblocks along the march to battle.

At long last, an actual silver lining is revealed.

Adding to the muddle is the deep involvement of Russia and China in the region. “Chinese businesses involved in Iranian developments are worth at least US$33 billion (S$44.3 billion) as of June last year,” reports The Straits Times. Russia, already militarily established in Syria, is currently building two more nuclear facilities in Iran, and is a major arms dealer to the nation. If the U.S. starts a war with Iran, it may find itself blowing up Chinese-backed businesses and getting shot at by Russian weapons.

The U.S. is already locked in a trade war with China that is damaging both sides, and Russia’s strange relationship with Trump and his associates spawned the Mueller report along with a slew of congressional investigations. The fact that a conflict with Iran is sure to pull those two world powers into the scenario would seem to be a firm firewall against opening hostilities, because a war in Iran would immediately become dangerous for the U.S.

However, because this is the Trump administration we’re talking about, there are a number of wild cards also at play. On Saturday, The New York Times dropped a bombshell report about U.S. efforts to dig into the software controlling Russia’s power grid, potentially establishing the ability to surveil or even disrupt that grid in the event of a conflict. Within that report lies this telling passage:

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.

Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

(Emphasis added.)

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are boring into the Russian power grid, an action freighted with potential consequences, and the president of the United States is being deliberately kept out of the loop because he cannot be trusted with the information. This is yet another Trumpian moment where one is utterly astonished and thoroughly unsurprised simultaneously, but it begs a larger question about this ramp-up for war with Iran.

Given the degree to which the actual war-making agencies within the federal government are taking offensive actions against a foreign power without the express permission of the commander-in-chief, and, in fact, are taking those actions without even talking to the president at all, one must wonder who is calling the shots with this Iran crisis.

John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, has lusted for war with Iran since time out of mind. Again and again, he has labored to make that conflict happen, only to see his efforts denied or thwarted. Now, he has in Donald Trump a president whose opinions and decisions often literally turn on whatever the last person he spoke to had to say. Crises with Venezuela and at the southern border have also served to strengthen Bolton’s hand within the administration.

Trump has proven himself to be easily manipulated. This is not to absolve the president of blame — many of his administration’s violent and repressive policies clearly do emerge from his own brutal vision. Yet leaving the nuclear deal, sending in the carrier group, increasing troop levels, slapping on sanctions, and now this rush to blame Iran for a logically dubious attack on Japanese tankers may very well be traced to Bolton.

And then there is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been the public face of this push toward war with Iran. Pompeo has been so adamant about the threat posed by Iran that he absurdly attempted to blame a May 31 car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Iran two weeks after it happened. Pompeo has gone so far as to wave the bloody shirt of September 11 to explain why the American people would support such a war.

On Tuesday morning, Politico reported that the administration is preparing a public relations campaign to help them bypass Congress on the way to war, while The New York Times noted Trump is preparing to send another 1,000 troops to the region. Neither article reported any uptick in international support for an attack on Iran, and the Politico piece pointedly underscored that Trump himself remains the principle obstacle to war within the White House.

If I have learned anything in the years since Donald Trump moved into the White House, it is that any and all seeming absurdities are in fact almost inevitable in the fullness of time. The idea that the national security adviser and the secretary of state may be running their own antagonistic foreign policy under the nose of a credulous, deliberately underinformed and violence-prone president may have sounded preposterous three years ago. Under the current circumstances, and with the memory of Oliver North and Iran/Contra in mind, the possibility is all too real.

There are many moving parts in this clockwork of nonsense. The evidence that Iran attacked those Japanese tankers is questionable. Japan and many U.S. allies stand thoroughly unconvinced. Russia and China loom large in the background, each with its own geopolitical stake in the region. Iran, for its part, remains defiant, announcing Monday that it would soon achieve a stockpiled level of enriched uranium that had been banned under the deal Trump walked away from. Iran is not acting guilty, a stance that is likely to serve the doubts of erstwhile U.S. allies.

All this would augur away from the onset of an immediate conflict, but for the existence of Donald Trump, John Bolton and Mile Pompeo. The combination of toxic ego and overwhelming incompetence found within these men is more than enough to tumble the U.S. into a calamitous war with Iran. Plus, it’s election season in the U.S., and wars almost always serve the incumbent president. Plainly, the situation bears watching and could go violently sideways at any moment. I don’t believe war will erupt immediately given the push-back taking place, but if it does, we must be ready to act in the defense of peace.