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Of Course Iran Hawks Want War with Iran
The American Conservative: Iran hawks are always saying that they don’t want war with Iran, but somehow they always end up advocating for attacking Iran. Bret Stephens did that again yesterday:
Nobody wants a war with Iran. But not wanting a war does not mean remaining supine in the face of its outrages. We sank Iran’s navy before. Tehran should be put on notice that we are prepared and able to do it again.
When denying that they seek war, most hawks usually put some distance between their pro forma denial and their demand for unleashing havoc, but Stephens doesn’t want to wait. Calling for the U.S. to threaten sinking the Iranian navy is to demand that our government threaten massive escalation and the initiation of a major war over relatively minor incidents. It is also calling for putting thousands of U.S. sailors in grave danger. The U.S. Navy presumably would prevail in any fight, it would come at a much higher cost than most Americans expect. Harry Kazianis wrote an article for TAC about the wargame he participated in that simulated a war with Iran in the Persian Gulf, and the results were very ugly:
Then Iran decides such an action cannot be allowed to stand, and decides to make a statement that not only is its military powerful, but it can cause serious damage to U.S. naval assets in the region. They counterattack with a massive volley of anti-ship missiles pointed at the ultimate symbol of U.S. military might: America’s only aircraft carrier operating in the region. Firing over 100 missiles, the carrier’s defenses are overwhelmed and the 100,000-ton vessel is destroyed, with over 2,000 sailors and airmen lost.
Iran doesn’t stop there. To make clear that it won’t tolerate any further U.S. military operations against its forces, Iranian conventional attack submarines—purchased from Russia—launch a series of attacks on U.S. surface combatants in the Persian Gulf. While Tehran loses two of its prized subs, one American Littoral Combat Vessel is sunk, with over 62 sailors killed.
There is no compelling reason for the U.S. to go to war with Iran. What U.S. interest is served by courting such a disaster? When we strip away the nonsense about a “pirate state,” Stephens doesn’t have an answer for that. If the U.S. weren’t strangling Iran’s economy with unwarranted sanctions and inflicting collective punishment on the Iranian people, our governments wouldn’t be on a collision course. Instead of additional threats that will only worsen the tensions between the U.S. and Iran, our government should be looking for a way to backtrack and de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible. The danger is that the Trump administration may be incapable of doing that after investing so much in their bankrupt Iran policy.
Advocates of attacking Iran have often exaggerated the ease and speed of military action against Iran, and they fail to take seriously how costly and destructive such a conflict would be. Not only is Stephens’ proposal an absurd overreaction, but it also confirms that many Iran hawks certainly do want to have a war with Iran and have been trying to create the conditions for one for a long time. A good way to tell whether or not someone wants war is how that person responds to an incident that may involve an adversary. If the initial response is to seize on the incident to make bellicose threats and to ratchet up tensions further, that person is not interested in finding a peaceful solution to the dispute. Yes, Iran hawks want war, and we should know that because they are constantly telling us this with their words and actions.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas.
The New York Times: What can be said with certainty about the explosions that rocked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday is that attacks on civilian targets are reprehensible.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a likely culprit, and a video taken by a United States Navy surveillance plane demands an explanation. It shows what American officials say was a Revolutionary Guards patrol boat pulling up alongside the Kokuka Courageous, one of the damaged tankers, several hours after the initial explosion, and removing a mine. Iranian officials denied involvement, and the Japanese owner of the Kokuka Courageous said Friday that the tanker was struck by a flying projectile, not a mine.
So there are unanswered questions about what happened, not just on Thursday but also last month when American officials blamed Iran for similar attacks against four tankers on the same waterway, which links to the Persian Gulf and carries almost one-third of the world’s petroleum.
The incident is the latest evidence that the United States and Iran are on a collision course, at a moment in which hard-liners on both sides have little interest in any diplomatic off-ramp.
After withdrawing from the 2015 agreement that restrained Iran’s nuclear program in fanciful pursuit of a “better deal,” President Trump embarked on a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran. The United States has imposed crushing sanctions, and more are planned, with a goal of shutting off Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of revenue.
Administration officials say this strategy is working because Iranian financing for its proxy forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon has been reduced. But Iranian leaders were never going to just capitulate to American demands, and they continue working to thwart American objectives in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere across the region.
Iran is also edging toward exceeding the limits imposed by the nuclear deal, announcing plans to increase its stockpile of reactor-grade nuclear fuel. And it may well be that the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which wields important military and economic clout in Iran and has often been at odds with the country’s more pragmatic political leadership, intends to safeguard its own interests by threatening the oil transport on which the world’s economy depends.
Iranians understand how damaging a conflict with the United States could be. But officials have long signaled that if they cannot export their oil, and maintain their economy, no Gulf state will be allowed to do so.
The Trump administration’s lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with Iran has resulted in a series of conflicting messages, all of which contribute to a growing sense of foreboding and unpredictability.
While the president has said he wants to extricate America from foreign wars, he also ordered a carrier group into the Persian Gulf last month, and he has sometimes raised the possibility of military action.
Mr. Trump continues to rely for advice on leading hawks, the national security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on Thursday went beyond the tanker incidents to accuse Iran of several other attacks without offering proof.
At the same time, Mr. Trump has dangled the possibility of talks with the Iranians, and, however inept his international deal-making has previously proved to be, that approach is far preferable to the escalation apparently favored by some of his advisers. But he seems to be backing away from that course. “It is too soon to even think about making a deal,” he wrote in a tweet on Thursday.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was, if anything, more adamant about not even talking. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who was visiting Tehran when the tankers were attacked, presented a message from Mr. Trump, the ayatollah, according to Iranian state media, responded, “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future.”
It may be too soon for a deal, but it is not too soon to chart a course out of this turbulence.
Once American and allied intelligence agencies thoroughly investigate the tanker attacks, the data should be presented to the United Nations Security Council. It may be necessary for the United States and its partners to reflag and escort oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, as happened in 1987 and 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war.
Dialogue between the Trump administration and Iranian government would be wise, though Iran may prove unwilling to talk unless sanctions are eased and the United States rejoins the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, attacks against civilian shipping in one of the world’s most vital international waterways, which sent crude oil prices up more than 3 percent on Thursday, have to stop. Every new provocation will make it harder to avoid a new regional cataclysm.
After Placing Blame for Attacks, Trump Faces Difficult Choices on Confronting Iran
By David E. Sanger and Edward Wong
The New York Times: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s accusation on Thursday that Iran was behind an attack on two oil tankers forces President Trump to confront a choice he has avoided until now: whether to make good on his threat that Tehran would “suffer greatly” if American interests were imperiled.
For weeks, Mr. Trump has weaved on the issue, by turns ordering a carrier group last month to head to the Persian Gulf and then distancing himself from the hawkish views of his national security adviser, John R. Bolton. Last week, the president said he was open to negotiating with Iranian leaders the way he has negotiated with North Korea. And on Thursday, with images of black smoke rising from a tanker hit with a mine, Mr. Trump seemed to reverse course, posting on Twitter that “it is too soon to even think about making a deal,” adding, “They are not ready, and neither are we!”
His equivocation reflects divisions in his administration, which has never come to an agreement on a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran — especially after it shattered the unity of the United States’ key allies, who had joined with the Obama administration to force Tehran into the 2015 nuclear deal that Mr. Trump subsequently abandoned.
Now, operating largely without allies, he faces an Iran that is escalating nuclear production and retaliating for sanctions the White House has reimposed without a diplomatic path in sight to steer the two longtime adversaries away from confrontation.
“If the Iranians were responsible for the attacks on shipping in the gulf, it is reckless and dangerous,” said William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state who opened the negotiations with Iran during the Obama administration.
“Sadly, that is also at least partly a predictable consequence of an American coercive diplomacy strategy that so far is all coercion and no diplomacy,” Mr. Burns said. “The risk is that hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington become mutual enablers, going up a very unsteady escalatory ladder.”
Mr. Trump seems to sense this, just as he sensed the same forces at work two summers ago, when he was threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against the government of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. By early the next year, he had reversed course, starting negotiations and claiming that he now had plenty of time to solve a nuclear crisis he had once called urgent.
But North Korea and Iran are radically different political entities, with vastly different abilities. North Korea already has nuclear weapons, giving it leverage Iran can only imagine. And while Mr. Kim is an absolute ruler, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is hardly a free actor: He would lose face, and perhaps his job, if he negotiated without first forcing the United States to rejoin the 2015 agreement that Mr. Trump has rejected as fatally flawed.
So the Iranian government has begun to respond to the tougher economic sanctions that Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo have championed by conducting its own form of escalation — beginning to edge out of the limits imposed on it by the nuclear accord. So, presumably, has the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is believed to be a player in the acts of sabotage in the gulf.
While the administration tries to find the line between deterrence and provocation, the Iranians appear to be struggling with the same problem. Mr. Rouhani did not announce a total nuclear breakout last month, but step-by-step moves to enlarge the country’s stockpile of reactor grade — not bomb grade — nuclear fuel. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not directly confronted American or Saudi or United Arab Emirates forces in the gulf.
“Iran’s supreme leader has to carefully calibrate his response to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If he responds insufficiently, he risks losing face. If he responds excessively, he risks losing his head.”
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Two months ago, Mr. Pompeo declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization, and announced sanctions on the businesses that have been among its major sources of revenue. When intelligence agencies picked up threats in early May, the aircraft carrier Lincoln was directed to steam toward the oil lanes that Iran could threaten.
That is when a debate broke out in the Defense Department. American commanders in region, led by the new head of the United States Central Command, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, called for an increase of nearly 20,000 troops in the region, officials said. Some top military brass, including Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged caution, fearing that Iran would see that increase as provocative — and perhaps a sign that, despite denials, the Trump administration’s real goal was regime change.
In the end, the president ordered about 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to increase the protection of American forces already based there.
Those tensions were echoed Thursday morning in the secure meeting room at the Pentagon, called the Tank, where Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, General Dunford and other senior administration national security officials gathered in a previously scheduled meeting to discuss threats in the Middle East as well as American troop levels in the region.
Mr. Shanahan, treading carefully because his formal nomination to be defense secretary has not yet been sent to the Senate, had pared back General McKenzie’s request because he feared Mr. Trump might reject it. But since then, Central Command has modified its request for more air and naval forces to protect American forces in the region and to deter an Iranian attack, two American officials said.
Preparing for Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Shanahan and General Dunford were ready to make the case that Mr. Trump had told the Pentagon to reduce American forces and United States involvement in the current wars in the Middle East, and avoid direct confrontation with Iran, one senior administration official said >>>
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
The New York Times political cartoon ban is a sinister and dangerous over-reaction
By Martin Rowson, cartoonist and author
The Guardian: April, it seems, really is the cruellest month for the New York Times. On 25 April, its international edition (formerly the International Herald Tribune) ran a cartoon by the Portuguese cartoonist António Moreira Antunes, previously published in the Lisbon paper Expresso and depicting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog leading a blind Donald Trump. In the way of cartoons, the Netanyahu dog had a blue Star of David (presumably meant to signify the Israeli flag) dangling from his collar, while Trump wore a yarmulke.
There was an instant outcry condemning the cartoon’s antisemitic imagery, including in articles and editorials in the New York Times itself. As a result, the paper has decided it will no longer publish any political cartoons in the international edition (the NYT domestic paper dropped cartoons several years ago) and is terminating its contracts with in-house cartoonists Heng and the multi-award winning Patrick Chappatte. In a statement released on Tuesday, the paper announced that it would “continue investing in forms of opinion journalism, including visual journalism, that express nuance, complexity and strong voice from a diversity of viewpoints”.
This is a gross overcorrection, even though the outcry had some justification. While you can just about get away with claiming the blue Star of David signifies the state of Israel rather than Jewish people in general, the signification of Trump’s yarmulke is impossible to argue away: the implication is clearly that the US president has been “Judaised” by the dirty Israeli dog, both of which are common antisemitic tropes of the type notoriously published in cartoon form in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.
As the Labour party knows to its cost, antisemitism is the most insidious of racisms and cartoonists in particular need to be increasingly careful when engaged in otherwise wholly justified images belabouring the actions of the Israeli government. This isn’t just to avoid online lynch mobs; we also need to nuance our work to make it absolutely clear that we’re condemning the Israeli government’s actions because they are rightwing nationalists (currently bizarrely cosying up to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, a blatant antisemite), and not because they’re Jewish.
But let’s get back to cartoons. The New York Times “disciplined” the unnamed editor responsible and announced that it would no longer be publishing any syndicated cartoons provided by CartoonArts International. But that wasn’t enough, and now the NYT cartoons are no more. Just like any other commercial enterprise, the New York Times can do what it likes, and I look forward to seeing some scathingly satirical tie-dyes in the pages of its international edition. But this cuts deeper than an over-reaction to an ill-judged cartoon. Cartoons have been the rude, taunting part of political commentary in countries around the world for centuries, and enhance newspapers globally and across the political spectrum, in countries from the most tolerant liberal democracies to the most vicious totalitarian tyrannies. As we all know, they consequently have the power to shock and offend. That, largely, is what they’re there for, as a kind of dark, sympathetic magic masquerading as a joke.
That’s also why the Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart is in jail, why the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar was facing 43 years imprisonment for sedition until a change of government last year; why five cartoonists were murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015; why dozens of British cartoonists – including William Heath Robinson – were on the Gestapo death list. And why, for that matter, when in the late 1950s the London Evening Standard ran a cartoon by its Jewish cartoonist Vicky attacking the death penalty, this so shocked and outraged a GP in Harrow that he wrote to the paper regretting that Vicky and his family had escaped the Nazis.
As Kart said at his trial, cartoonists are like canaries in the coal mine – when they come for us, you know the politics is getting toxic. But we’re not just subject to the shallow vanity of tyrants or the fury of mobs. The greatest threat to cartoonists has always been the very newspapers we parasitise on. When the accountants moved in on the US newspaper industry in the 2000s, the first employees to go were the cartoonists, just like most newspapers that get closed down aren’t shut by governments but by their proprietors. Nor is it just money. I’ve been “let go” more times than I can count (the worst case was when the Times sacked me to make more room for Julie Burchill’s column, though in a previous incarnation on the Guardian’s personal finance pages in the 1980s I was redesigned off the page and replaced with what was charmingly called “a creative use of white space”).
We are, in short, expendable. Nonetheless, the New York Times’ decision is particularly irksome in its intoxicating combination of cowardice, pomposity, over-reaction and hypocrisy. As I observed at the beginning of this article, April is the cruellest month for the New York Times, as its much vaunted (and self-promoting) claim to be America’s “newspaper of record” was dealt an almost fatal blow when it was revealed in April 2003 that its star reporter Jayson Blair was a serial plagiarist who had fabricated many of his stories. You’ll note, however, that the paper did not stop using reporters altogether in order to rebuild its reputation. Nor did it issue a statement announcing that it would “continue investing in forms of news journalism, including textual journalism, that express nuance, complexity and strong voice from a diversity of viewpoints” and then fill its pages with copy from, say, accountants and astrologers. Although after the dumbness of this decision, just give it time.
‘More Guns, Less Crime’ Is Wishful Thinking
By Editorial Board
Bloomberg: The evidence is compelling.
In the most thorough study yet published on the effects of concealed carry laws, a team led by Stanford University law professor John Donohue found that state laws making it easy to carry concealed firearms lead to more violent crime. The Stanford analysis follows a stream of previous studies reaching similar conclusions about so-called right-to-carry (RTC) laws. It’s the most definitive refutation of the “more guns, less crime” thesis promoted by the gun lobby — which, not surprisingly, remains hostile to peer-reviewed research on the causes of gun violence.
Using different statistical approaches, and operating with the most complete data yet compiled, the researchers tested the effects of right-to-carry firearm laws in 33 states that adopted them between 1981 and 2007 — tracking violent crime before and after, and controlling for other factors. The exact conclusions varied depending on the statistical method. The bottom line did not. No matter which model was used, the study found that in states that adopted RTC, “violent crime is substantially higher after 10 years than would have been the case had the RTC law not been adopted.”
And the impact isn’t trivial. RTC laws increased violent crime by between 13 percent and 15 percent 10 years after adoption. “There is not even the slightest hint in the data from any econometrically sound regression that RTC laws reduce violent crime,” the study concluded. States that adopted RTC “not only experienced higher rates of violent crime but they also had larger increases in incarceration and police than other states,” the study noted, meaning that RTC states generated higher levels of violent crime even as they increased investments to prevent and punish it.
“More guns, less crime” has always been a shaky proposition. Defensive gun uses against criminals are rare. Because aggressors are opportunistic, and retain the element of surprise, even trained professionals, including police officers, may have limited ability to repel an armed assault. At the same time, so-called good guys with guns regularly supply criminals with weapons. “The most frequent occurrence each year involving crime and a good guy with a gun is not self‐defense but rather the theft of the good guy’s gun, which occurs hundreds of thousands of times each year,” the new study points out. “Lost, forgotten, and misplaced guns are another dangerous byproduct of RTC laws.”
The proliferation of firearms also encourages criminals to arm themselves in public. In a survey of prisoners incarcerated for gun offenses, two-thirds reported that the likelihood of encountering an armed victim played a somewhat or very important role in their choice to use a gun.
The Stanford study is not the final word on gun violence or even on RTC. More studies are needed to understand the complex and cascading effects of firearm policies on real-world outcomes. But the highest-quality research now points to a clear conclusion that should surprise no one: Allowing citizens to carry concealed, loaded weapons with little regard for qualifications, security needs or training makes Americans less safe.
Netanyahu says he’ll attend October pre-indictment hearing
Times of Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer on Monday evening informed the attorney general that his client will attend a hearing on his three criminal cases set for October 2, after failing to convince Avichai Mandelblit to postpone it.
In a video posted online, Netanyahu’s lawyer Amit Hadad said, “We will come to the hearing, but it would have been right to reconsider the date and delay it.”
Hadad added, “We believe there are significant arguments justifying postponing the [hearing] date,” and complained of “dozens of missing documents” in the case files provided to him.
Monday was the last day by which Netanyahu could signal his intention to attend the hearing. Had he failed to do so, his right to a hearing would have been waived and Mandelblit would have moved to make a decision in his cases. The attorney general could then have filed the pending indictment in the prime minister’s criminal probes within days or weeks.
Netanyahu had attempted to have the meeting pushed off, citing the fresh elections, but Mandelblit dismissed the new vote as a justification for postponing the pre-indictment hearing, citing multiple delays by the premier’s defense team.
After Mandelblit announced in mid-February his intention to indict the prime minister, pending the hearing, on fraud and breach of trust charges in three corruption cases, and on a bribery charge in one of them, Netanyahu’s attorneys asked to freeze the process until after the April 9 election. They then refused to pick up the case files from the attorney general’s office for more than a month, saying they had not been paid for their services.
Last month, the attorney general agreed to postpone the hearing — originally scheduled for July 10 — to October 2-3. Netanyahu’s lawyers had asked for a full-year delay, arguing that the volume of evidence was too large to review in three months, but that request was rejected.
In late May, attorney Navot Tel-Zur quit the defense team, citing lack of payment, leaving Hadad as the sole attorney.
Netanyahu is locked in a battle with the Permits Committee in the State Comptroller’s Office over his request to fund his defense with the help of overseas financiers. The committee has rejected the request twice, saying it was inappropriate for non-Israeli benefactors to pay for the prime minister’s legal defense in a criminal case that alleges he received illicit gifts from wealthy individuals in Israel and abroad.
Hadad on Monday asserted that the Permits Committee’s decision contradicted its approach to “any other public figure.”
The lack of financial assistance, he said, “means only I am here to represent the prime minister. One person who needs to read so much material must have more time.” >>>
A top US general explains why Iran hasn’t attacked Americans in the Middle East — yet
Vox: A top US military official just said the Iranian threat against Americans in the Middle East remains “imminent,” but no major attacks have occurred mainly because of swift US action over the past month.
In early May, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was deploying an aircraft carrier, bomber planes, and anti-missile batteries to the Persian Gulf in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of threats from Iran.
The move, Bolton said, was meant “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
Iran apparently intended to target US troops in Iraq and Syria, or even use drones against Americans in a key waterway near Yemen. There was also information that Iran put cruise missiles on ships, heightening fears that it might attack US Navy vessels with them.
But Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who leads American forces in the Middle East, told multiple reporters in Baghdad on Thursday that the situation is somewhat on pause thanks to the US.
The initial deployment of ships and planes, along with the introduction of surveillance aircraft, has made Iran “sort of step back and recalculate the course that they apparently were on,” McKenzie said. He added, however, “I think the threat is imminent ... I don’t actually believe the threat has diminished.”
In other words, the quick US military response to the intelligence seems to have stopped Iran from planning to target America in the Middle East — at least for now. And while that possibility persists, Tehran also may have been deterred from launching strikes in the near future.
That doesn’t mean Iran will stand down forever, though.
“They probe for weakness all the time,” McKenzie told NBC News. “I would say the threat has probably evolved in certain ways even as our defensive posture has changed and become more aggressive.”
Iran is still causing Middle East mischief
If what McKenzie says is true, then it’s a big win for the Trump administration. A major Iranian attack on Americans would not only be a tragedy on its own but would also greatly increase the chance of a US-Iran war. After all, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — both noted anti-Iran hardliners — have long pushed for a broader fight.
It’s therefore vitally important that America continue to track any potential threats against the US in order to stop them from happening. According to NBC News on Thursday, some of those threats currently include missile attacks from small Iranian ships in the region or assaults by Iranian proxies or militias on US targets.
But it’s possible — and indeed likely — that Iran has already caused immense harm in recent weeks.
Four oil tankers were damaged in May near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway aggressively patrolled by Iran through which a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 percent of the world’s oil production flows.
Two of the oil tankers belonged to Saudi Arabia and one belonged to the United Arab Emirates, both staunch enemies of Iran and friends to the US. (The fourth was owned by a Norwegian company.)
On Thursday, United Nations ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Norway said the damages came after a country used divers to place mines on the large ships — though the diplomats didn’t specifically name Iran as the culprit. The US, however, has openly blamed Tehran for the sabotage, a charge Iran denies.
But that’s not all: Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched an attack on a Saudi oil pipeline a few days after the oil tanker incidents. And one of Iran’s top military leaders reportedly told militias in Iraq to prepare for a war. That may be why the US chose to remove some staff from the embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil.
There’s no question that Iran continues to act aggressively in the Middle East, putting US officials and America’s regional allies like Saudi Arabia on high alert. With all that extra attention, it’s unclear if Iran will feel emboldened enough in the coming weeks to attack Americans — escalating a situation that could easily and quickly get out of hand.
U.S. commander says American forces face 'imminent' threat from Iran
NBC, BAGHDAD — The top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East says he believes the Iranians or their proxies may orchestrate an attack at any moment.
"I think the threat is imminent," Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie said in an exclusive broadcast interview with NBC News in the Iraqi capital. "We continually evaluate our force posture in the region."
The U.S. has beefed up its military presence in the region in an effort to deter Iran and protect American forces and allies.
Over the last month, the Trump administration announced that it was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East, as well as Patriot missiles and additional troops, amid heightened concerns of an Iranian attack.
McKenzie stressed that tensions remain high.
"I don't actually believe the threat has diminished," McKenzie said after holding a series of meetings with the Iraqi prime minister and defense chief. "...I believe the threat is still very real."
McKenzie said he was "heartened" by the efforts of the Iraqi government to protect American forces and its allies in the region. Roadside bombs have posed the major danger to American forces in Iraq, McKenzie added, but he said the threat from the Iranians is evolving.
"They probe for weakness all the times," McKenzie said. "I would say the threat has probably evolved in certain ways even as our defensive posture has changed and become more aggressive, and we certainly thank our Iraqi partners for many of the things they've done."
"I think we're still in the period of what I would call tactical warning," he said. "The threat is very real. "
McKenzie declined to go into specifics on the nature of the threats.
A day after the U.S. announced it was sending additional military assets to the region to "send a clear and unmistakable message" to Iran, four oil attackers were attacked in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. suspects Iran was responsible for the attacks; the Iranian government has denied having any role in the incident.
Last month, U.S. officials said that the decision to beef up military forces in the region was based in part on intelligence that the Iranian regime has told some of its proxy forces that they can now target American military personnel and assets.
The intelligence shows that an Iranian official discussed activating Iranian-backed groups to target Americans, but did not mention targeting the militaries of other nations, the officials said.
Among the specific threats the U.S. military is now tracking, officials say, are possible missile attacks by Iranian dhows, or small ships, in the Persian Gulf and region; attacks in Iraq by Iranian-trained Shiite militia groups; and attacks against U.S. ships and against Saudi Arabia by the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The U.S. has accused Iran of moving missiles and missile components through the region's waterways for years, shipping missiles to the Houthis in Yemen and others. And Shiite militia groups like Baghdad Katib Hezbollah (BKH) have been in Iraq for years, acting essentially as sleeper cells.
But the call to awaken and activate the existing threats represented a new and alarming escalation, the U.S. officials said.
Some U.S. allies and members of Congress have expressed skepticism over the Trump administration's claims that Iran is responsible for the escalating tensions. The Iranians have also criticized the U.S. posture.
How to Navigate the Fog of War on Iran
Mike Giglio is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering intelligence and national security.
The Atlantic: When Barbara Leaf was a senior U.S. diplomat in Basra, in southern Iraq, Iranian-supplied bombs often rained down on her compound and harassed her convoys. “I was on the receiving end of mortars, EFPs, IEDs,” she told me, using acronyms for the deadly weapons that were familiar to any American serving in the country.
Leaf was in Basra in 2010 and 2011, when American troops regularly battled Iran-backed militias. She oversaw the establishment of the U.S. consulate in the city—which Donald Trump’s administration evacuated this fall, citing threats from the same Iran-backed militias, before partially evacuating the consulate in Erbil and the embassy in Baghdad last month.
Leaf sees those evacuations as an overreaction. She recently retired after three years as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, another post that involved managing the sort of Iranian threats the Trump administration is now spotlighting. Among other accusations, it blames Iran for May attacks against four UAE oil tankers; National Security Adviser John Bolton has said he will present evidence of this to the United Nations soon. “I am not privy to the intelligence now, but I was privy to it a year ago, and this is the kind of stuff you see periodically,” Leaf said.
Anyone who has spent the past month on edge about a potential military escalation between the United States and Iran might easily overlook a key fact: Nuclear weapons have not been the issue. U.S. officials such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have framed the standoff instead around other types of Iranian activity—threats from Iran’s proxies against U.S. troops and personnel, purported attacks against shipping interests, and the transport of short-range ballistic missiles around the Persian Gulf.
Yet these are the kinds of things Iran has been doing for a long time, and to put the current threats into context, I spoke with people who have real-world experience in dealing with them. They come from different professional backgrounds and political persuasions but share the sense that a retaliatory U.S. military strike is possible—and depends in part on whether Iran and its proxies carry out acts that have long been their modus operandi.
In effect, the Trump administration has moved the red line for military escalation from the issue of nuclear weapons to a wide range of more commonplace Iranian activities. Its public messaging has left Tehran with a surprisingly broad ultimatum. Bolton warned Iran last month that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force” as he announced that U.S. warships would be sent to the region. “What are ‘U.S. interests’? Who are our ‘allies’ for the purpose of this warning? What are their ‘interests’? ” asked Leaf, who is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So it was an extraordinarily flabby threat which was bound to be tested. [The Iranians] could try to push their luck.”
This is where the fog of war has settled—on how to read and respond to long-running threats from Iran that fall outside the realm of nuclear activity. The Trump administration has cited U.S. intelligence reports to say that such threats are increasing; debate has ensued on what the intelligence really means. Navigating this murky realm of classified data and asymmetrical threats can’t be done in a vacuum and requires understanding the context of long and complicated regional rivalries.
Today, in Iraq, the same Iran-backed militias that once fought U.S. troops have seen a resurgence thanks to the war with the Islamic State. They wield growing political power and far outnumber the American soldiers based in the country. The two sides were wary allies against ISIS, but with ISIS diminished and U.S.-Iran tensions rising, they are locked in an uneasy détente.
In Syria, Iran-backed militias have propped up the Bashar al-Assad regime. So has the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Tehran’s most powerful regional proxy. Israel has reportedly launched hundreds of strikes targeting the buildup of Iran-backed forces near its border with Syria. These forces also operate near U.S. troops in eastern Syria.
In Yemen, Iranian support for the Houthi rebels motivates the controversial Saudi-led war effort—while also providing an impetus for the Trump administration to bypass Congress to continue selling Riyadh weapons. Even tiny Bahrain is a front line for proxy struggle, as Iran backs insurgents against the U.S.-allied monarchy. Iran has also vowed at times to close the Strait of Hormuz, and threats to the oil interests of America’s Gulf allies continue. In addition to the recent attacks against Emirati oil tankers, Bolton has blamed Iran for an unsuccessful attack on the Saudi port of Yanbu, its most important oil site on the Red Sea.
Even these sources of U.S.-Iran tensions, however, pale in comparison with the Iraq War, which saw the U.S. military suffer hundreds of casualties in battles with Iran-backed militias. American soldiers were killed and maimed en masse by an especially deadly type of Iranian-made roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which were designed to pierce U.S. armored vehicles >>>
Sen. Kaine: Trump approved nuclear tech transfer to Saudis after Khashoggi's murder
Politico: The Trump administration has approved the transfer of nuclear technical expertise to Saudi Arabia seven times — including twice since the Saudi-orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Democratic senator said on Tuesday.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said the administration approved one of those transfers on Oct. 18, 2018, just 16 days after Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in an operation that the CIA believes was directed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The second transfer was approved on Feb. 18.
“President Trump’s eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan congressional objection, harms American national security interests and is one of many steps the administration is taking that is fueling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region,” Kaine said in a statement.
President Donald Trump has fiercely resisted congressional efforts to punish Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist who was a critic of the Saudi government. Trump has doubled down on U.S. weapons sales to Riyadh, and last month he bypassed Congress to sell more arms to the kingdom, drawing bipartisan rebukes. The administration has also continued to back the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, despite opposition from Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
Trump has also openly doubted the CIA’s assessment of Khashoggi’s murder, standing by the crown prince and refusing to impose human-rights sanctions. Earlier this year, the White House said it would not comply with a law requiring the administration to issue a report to Congress on Khashoggi’s murder and to impose sanctions — even after the Senate voted unanimously to place the blame squarely on the crown prince.
During a recent interview with Axios, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is close with the Saudi crown prince, refused to blame him directly for Khashoggi’s murder.
The White House did not immediately respond Tuesday when asked for comment.
The Trump administration has long viewed Saudi Arabia as a key strategic ally as part of its long-term campaign to deter Iran’s influence in the Middle East. In Yemen’s civil war, the Saudi coalition is fighting against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Kaine began asking for the information about U.S. nuclear transfers during public hearings more than two months ago. After Kaine’s requests went unanswered by the administration, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) stepped in and demanded a response.
The Energy Department has been engaged in negotiations with Riyadh that would allow U.S. companies to build nuclear facilities in Saudi Arabia. Last year, five Republican senators called on Energy Secretary Rick Perry to suspend those civilian-level nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi was murdered, citing fears that the kingdom could develop nuclear weapons of their own.
Last month, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz gave emotional testimony on Capitol Hill, urging the Trump administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable over the murder. Cengiz was waiting outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was killed and his body was dismembered.