U.S. allies are skeptical of the Trump administration’s claim of an escalated Iranian threat — and are issuing statements saying as much.
The State Department on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of non-emergency American employees from Iraq over what it says are increased threats from Iran. While it’s unclear what these threats are, the move signals a further step in the administration’s efforts to portray Iran as a global threat and diplomatically isolate it.
On Tuesday, after the New York Times reported that U.S. officials discussed a military plan to deploy 120,000 troops to the region to counter Iran, the president tried to downplay the story as “fake news” while also allowing that he might still do that very thing, only with “a hell of a lot more” troops.
The administration has cited these threats as a reason to increase the visibility of U.S. carriers in the Persian Gulf.
While some 160 German and Dutch soldiers suspended their training in Iraq on Wednesday, citing heightened threats in the region, they did not specify Iran as a source of that tension.
A top British commander earlier this week said that there are no signs of an increased threat from Iran, nor the forces it backs, in Syria.
“No — there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. We’re aware of that presence, clearly. And we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in,” said Maj Gen Christopher Ghika, deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS.
Iran has backed Shia militias in Iraq for decades, although these fighters are mainly Iraqi and typically serve their own country’s interests rather than Iranian ones.
Hours later, Ghika’s statement was almost immediately shot down by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), with a spokesman maintaining that U.S. troops in the region remained on high-alert owing to an increased threat posed by Iran.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told reporters that European diplomats who met with Pompeo impressed upon him “that we are living in a crucial, delicate moment where the most responsible attitude to take should be that of maximum restraint, avoiding any escalation on the military side.”
Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, which recently published a rather nuanced Iran playbook, told ThinkProgress he’s not sure if the removal of U.S. personnel in Iraq is just “tit-for-tat signaling” or an actual response to a threat.
“It seems very ad-hoc and reactionary. And that’s a danger. It gets into the perception and misperception of what’s happening,” said Clarke, adding that he’s not sure if the current U.S. strategy is “just bluster and rhetoric” or “actual policy change.”
“If we can’t defeat an insurgent group like the Taliban, how could we possibly think we’re going to wage war in a country like Iran, with a far more capable military, with both capable and asymmetric capabilities — and think we can close that out?”
Clarke feels that the odds of the United States going to war with Iran are slim — despite the presence of hardliners in the administration, like National Security Advisor John Bolton — without support from European allies, Russia, China, and Iraq. All of them are notably against any kind of escalation with Iran.
“I just don’t see anyone realistically thinking that a ground war in the Middle East is a good idea, particularly when we’re mired in two conflicts that we haven’t been able to close out for the better part of the last two decades — and they aren’t going well,” said Clarke. “If we can’t defeat an insurgent group like the Taliban, how could we possibly think we’re going to wage war in a country like Iran, with a far more capable military, with both capable and asymmetric capabilities — and think we can close that out? It’s just not in the cards.”
Iran has a smaller military than the United States, but has proxy forces with a global presence, cyber capacities, and more. If pushed, Colin said Iran could cause “far more damage than most Americans might be aware of.”
An invasion, he said, would also send the wrong message: To give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons is to be invaded (like Iraq and Libya). Meanwhile, to pursue nuclear weapons, as North Korea has, is to “get meetings, love letters, and summits.”
A deepening mystery in the Gulf
All of this is taking place as a peculiar incident involving an attack on four oil tankers, two of them belonging to Saudi Arabia, is still being investigated. None of the tankers were carrying oil, nor was anyone injured in the incident.
Iran has denied any involvement, accusing the United States of “psychological warfare,” with the country’s Supreme Leader, Aytollah Khamenei, insisting that Iran does not seek war.
Pompeo said the same thing on Tuesday during his visit to Sochi, Russia, but virtually every step the United States has taken seems to indicate a readiness for conflict.
After pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal last year, Trump has re-imposed the sanctions lifted under that agreement back onto Iran. He has also threatened any country that defies those sanctions with secondary sanctions.
He has declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — a branch of Iran’s military — a “terrorist organization.” Iran responded by branding CENTCOM and later, the U.S. military, as the same.
In appointing John Bolton (who for roughly 20 years has sought to start a war with Iran) as national security advisor, he paved the way for a military escalation with Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been tweeting about this inevitability:
In interviews in April, I predicted “accidents”—not because I'm a genius— but because #B_Team is so brazenly following @AmbJohnBolton's script (https://t.co/beCZByEaCT).
After all, half of B-Team were co-conspirators in disastrous Iraq war.
Stark reminder https://t.co/ksCi9ntp85 pic.twitter.com/hpkGaap8aC
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) May 14, 2019
Clarke said he hopes Trump brought in Bolton as, essentially, one big bluff.
“That could be part of the strategy — to get a noted hardliner on your teams to give the impression that war is a serious option, when really, the ultimate goal is to bring the Iranians to the table. That’s my hope,” he said.
A war with Iran, Clarke added, “serves U.S. interests in no way, shape or form.” However, the threat of war might serve Trump’s political interests.
“Does bellicosity, and making threats, and heated rhetoric serve American interests? Maybe domestically, if you’re trying to win an election and you’re trying to look like you’re tough on Iran.”