Cartoon by Sean Delonas

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 >>>