Echoes of Iraq in Trump’s Confrontation with Iran

The rising tensions with Tehran bear disturbing similarities to the run-up to war in 2003. Chief among them: the presence of John Bolton.

U.S. President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 22, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 22, 2018. Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

The Trump administration says it does not want war with Iran. Many of its actions suggest otherwise.

In the year since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, his administration has dramatically raised tensions by reimposing sanctions, choking off all of Iran’s oil exports, labeling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group, and, most recently, sending an aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East. In response, Iran said Wednesday it would begin a partial withdrawal from the nuclear deal (which until now Tehran and other major nations have continued to observe)—a move that Trump critics fear the president could use to justify an attack.

Most telling of all, perhaps, is that Trump’s Iran policy appears to have fallen into the hands of National Security Advisor John Bolton, the unremitting hawk who has repeatedly called for regime change in Tehran and was a key figure pushing for war with Iraq nearly two decades ago.

Some observers note parallels to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, not least of which is the presence of Bolton himself—and this time in a far more powerful role than he played back then. They worry that Bolton, as an undersecretary of state in late 2002 and early 2003, was a fierce advocate of war who was accused of manipulating intelligence to justify an invasion—and said as recently as 2015 that he didn’t regret his part in what has since become widely viewed as a strategic disaster.

This week it was Bolton, not the president or acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who spoke for the administration when he announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln, the ship’s carrier strike group, and a task force of four nuclear-capable B-52 bombers had been dispatched to the Middle East “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.” The Trump administration was reportedly acting in part on intelligence about Iranian threats from the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also has a track record of trying to provoke military hostilities with Iran.

Bolton’s role in announcing the deployment stunned some career national security officials in Washington. “I’ve never heard of that happening ever. It’s unprecedented,” said Greg Thielmann, a former senior intelligence official at the State Department who worked under Bolton and clashed with him before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “A national security advisor sending out a statement on his own authority—that didn’t even happen in the Iraq War.”

A spokesman for Bolton did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

“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,” two Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Dick Durbin, wrote Sunday in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Trump critics suggested that in some ways this was more risky and dangerous, because Iran is far larger and more formidable militarily than Iraq was—and the Iran nuclear pact may well have been keeping the peace better than the ragged United Nations sanctions against Saddam Hussein were two decades ago.

“This looks to me like such an obvious effort to provoke an attack by the Iranians,” Thielmann said. “And it has broad parallels to Iraq—when Iraq, under pressure, was allowing U.N. inspectors in and dismantling its missiles, and it made no difference at all. I suspect that’s exactly what will happen now. Iran has been fairly scrupulously acting in accord with the nuclear deal. It’s the United States which has not.” “This looks to me like such an obvious effort to provoke an attack by the Iranians,” Thielmann said. “And it has broad parallels to Iraq.”

One difference between Iraq circa 2003 and Iran today is that, for the moment at least, there appears to be no plan for a U.S. invasion. Nonetheless, critics such as Thielmann say there is an attempt at provocation similar to what the George W. Bush administration mounted against Saddam—opening the way to U.S. attacks on a pretext.

“I wonder if this is like the Iraq War because Bolton wants a war with Iran and he’s looking for an opportunity,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for a New American Security. “Bolton has [the Defense Department] responding to his priorities and interests rapidly and without much deliberation, and Bolton wants the public perception to be that he is guiding Iran policy.”

The national security advisor has made no secret of his consistent desire for regime change in Tehran, writing in an op-ed in 2015 that “the real solution to the ayatollahs’ nuclear weapons program is to get rid of the ayatollahs.” More recently, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in February, he announced in a video released by the White House and directed at Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.” In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bolton’s National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran after militants fired mortars into Baghdad.

There is some evidence that from the moment of his hiring, Bolton has viewed a confrontation with Iran as his main agenda, and that he has sought to foreclose dissent on Iran even though the traditional job of the national security advisor is to try to be an honest broker between differing views. Trump, who was reportedly hesitant to hire Bolton at the beginning of his administration, ousted previous National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and brought in Bolton only weeks before his withdrawal from the nuclear deal. McMaster and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were said to be in favor of finding ways to maintain the Iran nuclear treaty. Tillerson was also later fired to make way for the more hawkish Mike Pompeo.

According to U.S. officials, the request to move the carrier group originated at Central Command but was left to the White House to announce. “U.S. Central Command began developing a request for forces following recent and clear indications that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were making preparations to possibly attack U.S. forces in the region,” said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a Centcom spokesperson.

The new Centcom commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, seems aligned with Bolton on the danger Iran poses to the United States and its allies. He spent nearly half of a 30-minute speech in Washington on Wednesday sounding the alarm on Tehran’s “malign” activity and ambition across the globe.

“The long-term, enduring, most significant threat to stability in the Central Command area of operations is Iran,” McKenzie said, adding that Tehran is responsible for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. service members in Iraq. While some critics have derided the recent movement of U.S. forces to the region as a mostly symbolic show of force, McKenzie issued an implicit threat that the United States would not hesitate to use lethal force.

“While we do not seek war, Iran should not confuse our deliberate approach with an unwillingness to act,” McKenzie said. “We field an experienced, ready, battle-hard force with the best equipment and training in the world.”

Although Shanahan told lawmakers on Wednesday that the Pentagon had received “very, very credible intelligence” on Friday about an imminent threat from Iran, the administration has not provided specific details, raising questions that sound familiar from nearly two decades ago. At the time, several intelligence experts at the State Department accused Bolton of manipulating intelligence on Iraq to justify his hawkish views and threatening those who disagreed with him.

“The pattern that I’ve seen with Bolton then and subsequently is that he has established quite a track record of cherry-picking intelligence information that serves whatever case he’s going to make,” said Thielmann, who called Bolton’s predictive record “terrible.” Trump, meanwhile, is reportedly not very detail-oriented or inquisitive when it comes to intelligence briefings.

Bolton’s performance in the run-up to the Iraq War, along with other instances of belligerent behavior, prompted then-Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, at Bolton’s preliminary hearing as U.N. ambassador-nominee in May 2005, to accuse him of dishonesty.

“First, Mr. Bolton repeatedly sought the removal of intelligence analysts who disagreed with him,” said Biden, who later said his own tentative vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution was falsely influenced by the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence. “Second, in speeches and testimony Mr. Bolton repeatedly tried to stretch the intelligence to fit his views and repeatedly went back to the intelligence community to get the facts he wanted.”

Michael Haltzel, a senior Biden aide at the time, said that the senator—who later became vice president and is now running for the presidency in 2020—“had just incredible misgivings about Bolton from top to bottom.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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