According to Samantha Vinograd, national security adviser to Barack Obama, “Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today, let’s be clear on that, than when he came into office,” she declared. That disturbing possibility is rendered even more alarming by the repeated assurances from United Nations officials that the Islamic Republic remains in compliance with the 2015 nuclear accords. Indeed, Vinograd’s claim came only hours after Iran announced its intention to violate the JCPOA’s caps on uranium enrichment levels by the end of the month. If Iran is closer to a bomb today despite its adherence to the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, it’s only because the deal left Iran’s nuclear program in place.
Vinograd acknowledged that Iran uses its nuclear program as leverage to seek sanctions relief and is prepared to take aggressive action to force concessions from the West. But like so many of the Iran deal’s proponents, she appears to see this admission not as an indictment of Iran but of Donald Trump. According to this thinking, the Islamic theocracy is not the master of its own destiny. Trump alone is pulling the strings in the Middle East, and Iran is a mere pawn in his cruel game. Trump wants war with Iran, the JCPOA’s boosters suggest, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
In early May, the Trump administration began deploying military assets to the Middle East in an effort to deter Iran from what credible U.S. intelligence indicated as ongoing preparations for attacks on U.S. interests or those of its allies. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright thus blamed Trump for Iran’s aggressive posture just as she insisted that Ronald Reagan was to blame for Libya’s 1986 attempt to down U.S. warplanes with surface-to-air missiles. Democratic Rep. Jim Himes and Sen. Chris Murphy, too, called Trump’s buildup of a modest deterrent force in the region an effort to “provoke or cause an aggressive action” from Iran.
After that, U.S. intelligence assessments pinned the blame on Iran and its regional proxies for a sophisticated May 12 attack on four ships, including two Saudi oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. For Iran’s apologists, however, this was only proof of how desperately the Trump administration wants to go to war with Iran.
In the American Conservative, Gareth Porter wrote that the administration’s efforts to blame Iran was “an intelligence deception comparable to the fraudulent pretense for war in Iraq.” “A war against Iran will be a trumped-up war manufactured to burnish the president’s power and popularity,” wrote University of California Berkley Professor George Lakoff. Sen. Bernie Sanders likened the tanker attack to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and insisted that the primary sources of tension in the region were “provocations on the part of the United States against Iran.” Still, despite the new and legitimate grievance against Iran, the Trump administration did not satisfy its thirst for Iranian blood.
One month later, American officials again blamed Iran for a bold daylight assault on two more tankers in the Gulf of Oman, releasing a detailed timeline of events and video evidence in support of the charge. The Week’s Ryan Cooper suggested the Saudis were responsible for “false flag” attacks on its own interests. Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes contended that Trump’s lack of credibility ensures that the U.S. was “isolated in trying to pin the blame on the Iranians,” which is untrue. “What is their motivation to be provocative with the Iranians,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly asked on Sunday. “Why of all the countries in the world did the president of the United States choose as his first country to visit Saudi Arabia?” She added. “Follow the money.”
Conspiratorial thinking requires cognitive leaps, so it’s unsurprising that so many of the accusers have not reconciled these claims with their recent assertions that questioning the validity of American intelligence assessments was reckless in the extreme.
Like most conspiracy theories, the notion that Trump is spoiling for war in the Middle East is wholly resistant to contradictory evidence. Administration officials have told any reporter willing to listen that it is Tehran, not Washington, that sees utility in a set of limited strikes on Iranian targets—an overreaction that Iranian leaders believe will reinforce the regime’s faltering domestic position. Trump’s reaction to Iranian provocations, however, has been restrained almost to the point of negligence.
Despite Iran’s attacks, the president and his Cabinet officials have continued to set conditions for direct diplomatic engagement with Iran. Trump even went so far as to call the attacks on international shipping “very minor.” That is a heedless dismissal of America’s obligation as the guarantor of the collective right to freedom of navigation on the high seas and is indicative of a historical and legal illiteracy more common among his pacifist liberal critics.
Contrary to the tinfoil hat-clad opposition, the Trump administration is not warm to the prospect of war with Iran. The White House’s steadfast reliance on economic sanctions to bring Iran back to the negotiating table has led to a dangerously passive response to these audacious attacks on the U.S.-led global commercial order. The pattern of escalation in the Persian Gulf suggests that Iran is not done testing America’s lack of resolve. If the U.S. does not impose unendurable costs on Iran’s bellicose behavior, the next attack could be one that Washington simply cannot afford to ignore.
The notion that Trump and company are salivating for violent conflict with Tehran is rooted not in evidence but in shared assumptions and subjective inferences. It is a conclusion in pursuit of supporting evidence. This is hardly the first conspiracy theory the Iran deal’s proponents have embraced, and it probably won’t be the last.