Earlier this month, actionable intelligence obtained by the White House indicated that Iran was preparing to execute attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Trump administration responded forcefully, deploying an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers, amphibious landing vessels, and Patriot anti-missile batteries to the region. The New York Times reported on Monday that contingency plans are for the breakout of hostilities involving an expeditionary force of 120,000 U.S. troops are in the works.
For the Trump administration’s critics, this is the prelude to a war this White House has long sought. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright described the buildup in the Middle East as part of America’s tradition of “provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats.” Deeming National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “Islamaphobes,” The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss insisted that the president’s puppeteers are spoiling for an Iraq War 3.0 in the Persian Gulf. “Donald Trump is doing everything possible to provoke a conflict with Iran while making it look like Iran’s fault,” The Guardian’s Michael Fuchs averred. Even Democratic Rep. Jim Himes and Sen. Chris Murphy lay the blame for the current standoff with Iran at the feet of the president, accusing the administration of believing that the regime can be “destroyed by the U.S. military” and of seeking to “provoke or cause an aggressive reaction” to justify an invasion.
The eagerness with which these and other critics of American defense policy disregard the intelligence to which only U.S. policymakers are privy suggests their conclusion about the illegitimacy of the current crisis is foregone and impervious to contradictory evidence. In fact, maintaining their posture requires an unwavering dedication to ignorance.
It is no secret that this administration supports regime change in Iran. Indeed, if we were to judge by the rolling protests that have crippled the Islamic Republic over the last two years, that sentiment is not native only to the Trump White House. There are not, however, many indications that the administration is prepared to take military action to realize that objective. In fact, it would be counterproductive to the strategy they are currently pursuing, which consists of imposing broad economic sanctions on Iran to harden grassroots resistance to the regime in the hopes of catalyzing a revolution.
The White House recently imposed sanctions on Iran’s steel, aluminum, copper, and iron industries. These sanctions, which followed Iran’s decision to follow America’s lead and partially withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accords, are aimed at Iran’s blue-collar workers—the backbone of the Iranian regime’s popular support. In concert with sanctions on the regime’s nuclear-related industries, its energy, shipping, and financial sectors, and labeling the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist entity, resulting in financial proscriptions on one of Iran’s largest public employers, the pressure on the Iranian economy and its currency is intense. If the White House is to be believed, outright hostilities between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic would derail these efforts. Indeed, war would only serve Tehran’s interests.
According to the intelligence that prompted this latest buildup of U.S. forces in the region, the only party that wants a conflict is the Iranian regime. Tehran’s objective “is to prod the United States into a miscalculation or overreaction,” the Times reported. American officials are reportedly aware that Iran’s objective is to force the U.S. to execute a limited strike on Iranian targets while avoiding an all-out ground campaign the regime would not survive, thereby whipping up anti-American sentiment and increases internal political cohesion now strained by economic hardship.
You don’t have to take the White House’s word for it. On Monday, the White House got the casus belli it is supposedly spoiling for. According to the U.S. assessment, Iran or its proxy forces were responsible for an assault on two Saudi oil tankers, a United Arab Emirates tanker, and a Norwegian-flagged vessel anchored in UAE waters. A team of Iranian-linked saboteurs allegedly used explosives to blow large holes in the hulls of these ships below the waterline, taking them out of commission and causing global oil prices to spike by 2 percent. The threat to international commerce and global maritime navigation posed by this attack is more than enough to justify a retaliatory response, but the Trump administration’s reaction has been restrained.
Those who accuse the Trump administration of engineering a military confrontation with Iran are asking you to ignore your own eyes and ears in service to their conspiracy theory. No president would disregard an imminent threat to U.S. interests and personnel. The attack on four ships in the UAE suggests that threat is real and urgent. It more than justifies the White House’s efforts to deter further provocations of the sort the West would have no choice but to respond to with proportionate force.
If there is to be war, it would mean the end of the administration’s efforts to undermine the Iranian regime from within—a prospect administration officials are telling anyone willing to listen that they want to avoid. It must be a source of frustration that so few of their critics seem to care. They much prefer a simpler narrative in which the tyrannical and terroristic Iranian regime is the victim—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.