The Trump administration is reviewing plans for a military confrontation with Iran, involving as many as 120,000 U.S. troops — a force nearly as large as the one that invaded Iraq in 2003.
According to the New York Times, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented this “updated military plan” as a potential response to an Iranian attack on American forces or the reactivation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. John Bolton, the White House national security adviser whom the president frequently accuses of trying to get him into a war, ordered this “update.”
It is not clear whether the president has been briefed on this plan. It is possible that the White House’s blueprint for a massive new war in the Middle East exists primarily to inspire reports such as this one. “More than a half-dozen American national security officials” spoke with the Times about the plan, which would be an extraordinarily broad act of insubordination, unless the leak was officially sanctioned. It’s conceivable, then, that the point here is mostly to intimidate Iran with the specter of American military might. But it isn’t too hard to conceive more ominous scenarios, either.
“The president has been clear, the United States does not seek military conflict with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, told the Times on Monday. “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we are ready to defend U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”
The idea that “Iran’s default option has been violence” for the past four decades — while the U.S. has tried ceaselessly to find good-faith, diplomatic resolutions to the two nations’ disagreements — is a popular one in the United States. And the Times feels no compulsion to directly challenge Marquis’s narrative. But it is rather difficult to match that story to many basic facts of U.S.–Iran relations since the mid-20th century. To name just a few:
• When Donald Trump was 7 years old, the United States orchestrated a coup against Iran’s democratically elected government, leaving its people subject to authoritarian rule.
• Three decades later, the U.S. aided Iraq in its invasion of Iran, a war of aggression that claimed hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives.
• In 1988, the U.S. military fired a surface-to-air missile at a passenger plane flying in Iranian airspace and incinerated 290 innocent people (we later expressed regret for the error; Iran did not retaliate militarily).
• In the first years of this century, the Iranian government made diplomatic overtures to the George W. Bush administration, seeking comprehensive negotiations over the various areas of conflict between the two countries. Their offer was rebuffed, the U.S. president cast Iran as a member of the “axis of evil,” and his administration proceeded to push for the overthrow of the Iranian regime. Meanwhile, the Bush administration invaded and toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, which did not have nuclear weapons, while declining to militarily confront North Korea, which, by the end of Bush’s tenure, did.
This is far from the only relevant context for understanding the latest crisis in U.S.–Iran relations, of course. But unlike the odious nature of Iran’s theocratic regime, Tehran’s support for non-state militia groups hostile to Israel, or its aid to insurgent forces in Iraq, the many reasons why Iran might understandably desire a defensive nuclear weapons program, or resist U.S. diplomatic overtures, often go unmentioned in American media coverage.
Despite those reasons, in 2015, Tehran did decide to engage the U.S. in good-faith diplomacy, and abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran abided by its commitments under this agreement. Since last May, the U.S. has not.
At President Trump’s direction, America has reimposed harsh sanctions on both the Iranian economy and any foreign firms that do business with it. For this reason, even though many European countries wish to honor the nuclear agreement, they have been unable to uphold their end of the bargain — European companies are more afraid of losing access to the U.S. financial system then they are enticed by trade and investment opportunities in Iran. These sanctions have triggered pharmaceutical shortages that threaten the lives of ordinary Iranians, while throwing the Iranian economy into a recession so severe, the IMF believes it is hampering growth throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In response, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced last week that if Europe does not help Iran secure access to global banking and oil markets within 60 days, his government will no longer honor the restrictions on uranium enrichment that it committed to under the nuclear agreement.
As of late April, U.S. intelligence indicated that Tehran had no desire to provoke a conflict with the U.S. As of last week, President Trump’s position was “we just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons — not too much to ask.” The Iranian government has given every indication that it agrees that this is a reasonable demand. Indeed, it has now remained in (ostensible) compliance with the nuclear agreement for a full year after America’s withdrawal.
But in early May, new intelligence reports supposedly “indicated that Iran was building up its proxy forces’ readiness to fight and was preparing them to attack American forces in the region.” And American officials are now accusing Iran (without any definitive evidence) of sabotaging oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
So, perhaps the U.S. has no choice but to meet Iran’s next provocation with overwhelming military force; after all, unlike us, our enemy’s default option is violence.