Bolton and Pompeo Are Steering Trump Toward War with Iran
There are no upsides to the recent designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization — unless you’re trying to provoke a war.
The decision by the Trump administration to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization marks another dangerous step in the relentless campaign Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are waging to provoke a U.S.-Iranian military conflict and topple the regime in Tehran.
Their success will depend on whether they can manipulate a distracted, ill-informed, impulsive, and erratic president into acting against his own instincts to avoid another regime-change campaign in the Middle East that could drag the United States into a messy and open-ended conflict. They have been able to get the president to dance to their tune on other issues, but can they do it again on an issue with much higher stakes for the country?
The IRGC terrorist designation is a political and symbolic decision with no upsides and plenty of potentially dangerous consequences for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
It may make the administration look tough to its political supporters, but it doesn’t inflict further economic harm on Iran or extend the reach of a harsh sanctions regime that has already caused great hardship for the Iranian people.
Foreign individuals and companies who do business with the IRGC — or IRGC-owned, operated, or affiliated businesses — can already be blocked from the U.S. financial system, have their assets frozen, or be subjected to lawsuits.
Iran is unlikely to take this designation in stride. Indeed, the majority of the Iranian Majlis is already demanding that the Iranian government retaliate.
It is hard to predict how or when Iran might retaliate, but Tehran has numerous options in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. Thousands of U.S. troops in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria where they operate close to Iranian-organized militias or IRGC personnel, will now have targets on their back if Tehran decides to respond militarily to the designation.
If this happens, the resulting tit-for-tat cycle could prove difficult to control because the two countries have no diplomatic or military communication channels in place to prevent a local incident from escalating into a serious military conflict. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community understand these risks, which is why both reportedly opposed the designation. U.S. military officials are justifiably concerned about putting more American troops in danger and igniting a conflict with Iran that could undermine the anti-Islamic State campaign in Iraq and Syria as well as Washington’s diplomatic relationships in the region.
This additional sanction, like all previous ones, will not force Tehran to submit to American diktats. In fact, more financial pressure is likely to have the opposite effect, convincing Iranian officials that Washington will not settle for anything less than Tehran’s complete and unconditional surrender.
It’s no mystery why Iranian officials would feel this way — why would any government consider negotiating when the other party isn’t open to compromise? The designation will only play into the hands of the most extreme hardliners in the Iranian political establishment who favor more aggressive Iranian behavior in the region and Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Moreover, the designation has the potential to stir up greater conflict and instability in a region that is already rife with both.
It will create more headaches for the U.S.-Iraqi relationship and further complicate the position of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who is already struggling to strike a balance between Tehran and Washington.
Baghdad depends on Iranian-supported Shia militias to maintain security and keep a lid on the Islamic State. A military confrontation between U.S. forces and these units would force Mahdi to take sides between his two patrons. Given Iraq’s dependence on Iran for energy supplies, trade, and security assistance, he would likely choose his neighbor to the east.
The designation is part of a well-crafted game plan that Bolton and Pompeo have been peddling for years: apply enough economic, diplomatic, and military pressure to force the Iranian regime to either capitulate to American demands or fall apart.
Before they joined the administration, both were vocal advocates of withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iranian regime change, and the preemptive use of force against Iran. Since then, Pompeo has called for Iran’s unconditional surrender on the JCPOA. Both advisors successfully pressured President Trump to reverse his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria after proclaiming that U.S. troops will remain in Syria until “every Iranian boot” is expelled from the country.
The intent of Pompeo and Bolton is clear: provoke Iran into bolting from the JCPOA, re-starting its nuclear program, and escalating its regional behavior, thereby providing the United States or its regional partners with a pretext to use military force against the regime.
They understand that the clock on the Trump administration is ticking and that their chance of overthrowing the Iranian regime will slip away in 18 months if the president isn’t re-elected.
Both are pugnacious, stubborn, and ideological hawks. Even more worrisome, they know how to sell Trump on their agenda and play him like a violin — as they did in manufacturing the volte-face on Syrian troop withdrawal and pressuring Trump to propose a denuclearization deal at the Hanoi Summit that was far beyond the ability of Kim Jong Un to accept.
The known unknown here is whether the president, who for all his chest-thumping bravado has promised to extract America from wars in the Middle East, will remind his two advisors that he’s the president and they’re not. Will he make it clear that he does not want to take this country into a strategically opaque war with Iran that could be bloody, unpredictable, and disastrous for American interests in the region?
If we were bookies in Las Vegas, we would not take odds on this bet.
The last two Republican administrations plunged America into wars in the Middle East.
The first effort, the Gulf War, was a controversial but tactical victory. The second effort damaged American national security.
Although President Donald Trump has explicitly rejected his predecessors—in extraordinary, unsparing terms—his staffing choices, alliances with facets of the hawkish right, and boisterous nullification of the Iran nuclear deal have left many to wonder: will Trump try to vanquish Tehran in battle?
Democrats in Congress’ upper chamber apparently think so. “Sixteen years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we are again barreling toward another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East based on faulty and misleading logic,” write Sens. Dick Durbin and Tom Udall, both Democrats. The Trump administration’s Iran policy is “built on the ashes of the failed Iraq policy.”
The brains behind the White House’s Iran policy include many of the champions of the 2003 preemptive invasion of Iraq: the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), Frank Gaffney and Fred Fleitz’s Center for Security Policy (CSP) and the president’s national security advisor, John R. Bolton. Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, co-wrote a book with Michael Ledeen shortly before the 2016 election; Ledeen, an old-school neoconservative, has consistently argued that the United States should have struck Iran first, not Iraq, in the fracas early last decade. A former senior administration official still in the loop tells me that war on the regime in Tehran is “very” possible.
Writing in the Washington Post, the senators assert: “The Trump administration has also been attempting to create a strong link between al-Qaeda and Iran—based on vague suggestions, but no hard evidence.”
Indeed, an aide to a senior House member pointed me to a Washington Times op-ed page, long a repost of hawkish conservatives, that has been making the rounds. The February piece is quite friendly to John Bolton, the consummate lawyer, with its authors making the case that the allegedly substantial relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda could justify a strike under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed swiftly after the September 11 attacks. For realists, such insinuations are evidence enough of the continued need for a new AUMF. Bolton’s second act would perplex Fitzgerald and vindicate Faulkner: the past is never dead, it’s not even past. Yesterday, Bolton was on the Hill, holding court with the House GOP’s most powerful woman, rising star Rep. Liz Cheney.
“There is speculation that administration officials are considering striking Iranian territory or its proxies,” write Durbin and Uudall. The president’s attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, while making clear he did not speak for the White House on this issue, has told me the U.S. position is essentially regime change. Though the president has insisted he would meet with the Iranian leadership, on the North Korean model, it’s been crickets from Tehran. That suits seemingly everyone else in the administration, except maybe the president, just fine.
In this mille-feuille government, in addition to Bolton, Mike Pompeo’s State Department has been as fulsome an opponent of the Iranian regime as any entity—with officials taking to social media, sometimes bizarrely, to make their case.
Bolton has long believed a U.S. confrontation with Iran is both inevitable and desirable. In 2015, he authored a New York Times op-ed whose title, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” said it all. He has urged that “regime change” in Iran be made a declared goal of U.S. foreign policy.
When Trump announced his decision to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops now in Syria, Bolton swiftly imposed conditions: ISIS must first be eliminated, Iranian forces and allied militias must leave, and the Kurds must be protected.
Yet enforcing such red lines would require a permanent presence of American troops. For how, without war, would we effect the removal of Bashar Assad’s Iranian allies, if he declines to expel them and the Iranians refuse to go?
Bolton has an ally in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In Cairo last week, Pompeo declared it U.S. policy “to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
And though Hezbollah has been a “major presence” in Lebanon for several decades, “we won’t accept this as the status quo,” said Pompeo, for Hezbollah is a “wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime.”
But how does the secretary of state propose to push Hezbollah out of Lebanon peacefully when the Israelis could not do it in a month-long war in 2006?
Pompeo’s purpose during his tour of the Middle East? Build a new Middle East Strategic Alliance, a MESA, an Arab NATO, whose members are to be Egypt, Jordan and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
There are other signs a confrontation is coming soon. The U.S. has objected to Iran’s pending launch of two space satellites, saying these look like tests of missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads. Yet Iran has never produced weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and never tested an ICBM.
Pompeo has also called for a conclave in Poland in February to bring together an anti-Iran alliance to discuss what is to be done about what he calls “our common enemy.”
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu boasted of Israel’s latest strike in Syria: “Just in the last 36 hours, the air force attacked Iranian warehouses with Iranian weapons at the international airport in Damascus. The accumulation of recent attacks proves that we are determined more than ever to take action against Iran in Syria, just as we promised.Israel brags that it has hit 200 targets inside Syria in recent years. The boasting may be connected to Bibi’s desire to strengthen his credentials as a security hawk for the coming Israeli election.
But it is also a provocation to the Iranians and Syrians to retaliate, which could ignite a wider war between Israel and Syrian and Iranian forces.
What does the U.S. think of the Israeli strikes? Said Pompeo: “We strongly support Israel’s efforts to stop Iran from turning Syria into the next Lebanon.”In short, forces are moving in this country and in Israel to bring about a U.S. confrontation with Iran — before our troops leave Syria.
But the real questions here are not about Bolton or Pompeo.
They are about Trump. Was he aware of Bolton’s request for a menu of targets in Iran for potential U.S. strikes? Did he authorize it? Has he authorized his national security adviser and secretary of state to engage in these hostile actions and bellicose rhetoric aimed at Iran? And if so, why?
While Trump has urged that the U.S. pull out of these Mideast wars, Pompeo has corrected him, “When America retreats, chaos often follows.”
Is Trump looking for a showdown with Iran, which could result in a war that might vault his approval rating, but be a disaster for the Middle East and world economy and do for him what Operation Iraqi Freedom did for George W. Bush?
One thing may confidently be said of the rhetoric and actions of Bolton and Pompeo: This is not what brought out the new populists who made Donald Trump president, the people who still share his desire to “stop the endless wars.”
Len Khodorkovsky, a digital strategy official, is a proud, near-daily regime antagonist online. Pompeo himself, on Wednesday, took questions from the Iranian people in an online format. Said Pompeo: “The U.S. has great respect for the people of #Iran, and I believe it’s important for us to hear from them directly. So I asked the Iranian people to send me questions.
I received more than 100,000 questions. Go to @USAdarFarsi to see my answers to many of them.” And Brian Hook, Foggy Bottom’s Iran point man, recently released a video of himself touring the abandoned, but kept-up Iranian facility on Washington’s Embassy Row. On the occasion of the Islamic Revolution’s fortieth anniversary, Hook, from the old embassy’s steps said: “The United States hopes the next forty years look radically different, as you, the people of the Iran, take your rightful place as a vibrant force for stability and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond.” Unlike the often-vacillating senior officials of John Kerry’s State Department, Hook’s pulling few punches. His stock is on the rise: according to the Emiratis, Hook was the only official to accompany Jared Kushner, the most powerful official in the White House, to a recent meeting with the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed.
For many Iran hawks, the belief is that it’s 1989, not 2003. Iran is a hub of global counterculture—Islamic extremism—that will collapse on its own weight, a la the Soviets, if enough pressure is applied, so goes the view. This is the line of the controversial People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), and its Washington surrogate the National Council for the Resistance of Iran (NCRI), closely tied to Bolton, Giuliani and other Trump whisperers such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
This approach may seem fantastic or foolish to some—is regime collapse likely, or even preferable for the stability of the region? What are the United States’ vital national interests?
This week, Durbin and Udall joined others in Congress who have tried to cull the war powers of an unpredictable president. “We plan to soon reintroduce draft legislation by a bipartisan group of senators that would restrict any funds from being spent on an unconstitutional attack against Iran,” the duo said. “Our Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act would rebuke Iran while affirming congressional war powers and preventing the president from dragging us into another needless conflict.”