‘We May Be Moving Toward a Military Confrontation’

Sen. Angus King warns of the danger of the Trump administration’s latest actions against Iran and the continued threat from the Islamic State.

U.S. Sen. Angus King speaks during a confirmation hearing for CIA director nominee Gina Haspel before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on May 9, 2018.
U.S. Sen. Angus King speaks during a confirmation hearing for CIA director nominee Gina Haspel before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on May 9, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and four nuclear-capable bombers arrive in the Middle East, a veteran politician who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee is warning that National Security Advisor John Bolton’s confrontational style could provoke a dangerous escalation with Iran. It was Bolton, not the Pentagon, who on Sunday announced the movement of U.S. forces, which the administration said was designed to send a “clear and unmistakable” message to Tehran. The decision, made in response to what acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called “very, very credible” intelligence warning of an imminent threat, was meant to deter Iran or proxy forces from launching an attack on U.S. forces in the region.

On Friday, the Pentagon announced the decision to send additional U.S. forces to the region to respond to the threat, including the USS Arlington amphibious ship, which transports U.S. Marines and their equipment, and a Patriot missile battery.

But Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who recently visited U.S. troops in Iraq, said Bolton’s fiery rhetoric actually risks provoking the Iranian regime into an attack. King spoke with Foreign Policy about U.S. policy toward Tehran, the continued threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and President Donald Trump’s decision to finally nominate a permanent defense secretary.

Foreign Policy: Are you concerned that the latest actions by the Trump administration could lead the United States into a confrontation with Iran?

Angus King: One of the difficulties over there [in Iraq] is that the Shia militia are a very powerful force within the country, and they are not fully in control of the government. Interestingly, when I was there one of the things that we learned was that there are elements within the militias who don’t like Americans and might want to cause us harm. The Iranians were actually holding them back; the word from Iran was they were not to attack Americans. So the danger now with this heightened level of tension is that if Iran rescinds that restraining order, that could be dangerous for our troops.

FP: Have you been briefed by the administration or the Pentagon on the threat?

AK: No, I haven’t had a briefing, but I have read the intelligence. I’m not going to share what they say, but I will share a concern, and that is that the tensions are so high with our withdrawal from the [Iran nuclear deal], the characterization of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] as a terrorist organization, our increasing of sanctions and secondary sanctions, which will have severe effects on the Iranian economy, and then the movements of the carrier and the bombers. My concern is we look on those as a response to Iran’s malicious actions—which, by the way, are very real—but the danger is if they perceive them not as reactions to them but as provocative actions, they will then respond. Then we have an escalatory situation that could be very dangerous.

You can easily envision a scenario where some members of a few militias in Iraq fire on American troops, we then respond with some kind of military action, and Iran responds to that. It’s a very dangerous situation, and I am just uncomfortable that we may be moving toward a military confrontation that would be very harmful.

What I saw on the ground in Iraq and in meetings with Iraqi officials is it’s a tense situation. We need to be tough and assertive with Iran, but we also need to be calibrated, and we need to have some lines of communication to be sure that we don’t get into a confrontation accidentally.

FP: What do you think of longtime Iran hawk Bolton’s stance on Tehran?

AK: John Bolton’s style is confrontation. He made a speech in 2017 to a group of Iranian exiles that said “the only solution is regime change” and “in 2019 we are going to be celebrating in the streets of Tehran.” So he’s been pretty clear about his position, which adds somewhat to the concern that he may be guiding policy in such a way that confrontation becomes inevitable. That’s what’s concerning me.

FP: Iran just announced it will stop complying with parts of nuclear deal—what can be done to bring them back into compliance, or to craft a new agreement with the United States?

AK: It’s hard for us to talk about bringing them back into compliance when we abrogated the deal on our own without justification as far as I’m concerned. I think that was a huge mistake of policy. The agreement delayed Iran’s nuclear program significantly, they were abiding by it, it provided us with a level of intelligence about what they are doing that was unprecedented. If Iran decides to break out, I think that’s unfortunate, but I don’t know what our government expected when they took the steps they did.

The only thing worse than a malicious, troublesome, troublemaking Iran in the Middle East is a malicious, troublesome, troublemaking Iran with nuclear weapons.

FP: Turning to Syria, have you gotten a clear picture from the administration on how many U.S. troops will remain?

AK: No, I have not. When we were in Iraq, what I learned was No. 1, ISIS is still alive and a danger. It’s a serious threat—everybody that we talked to said that. No. 2, the Iraqis are worried that we will do in Iraq what we did in Syria, that they will wake up one morning and we will be pulling out. There is a 79-country coalition in Iraq to fight ISIS, but we are the glue, we are the leaders of the coalition, and it would be very destabilizing if we pulled out. Iraq is a country that is sort of on a pivot that can go either to becoming a stable and productive and helpful country in the Middle East, or they could tip over to become a failed state. Our presence, I think, is a stabilizing factor.

In Syria what I heard, especially from the Kurds, was that their concern about our withdrawal from Syria exposes the Kurdish militias in Syria to the Turks and undermines the ongoing struggle with ISIS.

FP: What do you think of efforts to establish a safe zone in Syria to protect the Kurds?

AK: The Kurds are very worried about Turkey, and with our withdrawal, the Kurdish fighters who have been our most loyal allies and really taken the brunt of the casualties in the fight against ISIS will be exposed to a Turkish attack that would be devastating. So that’s something that we really have to worry about, and I think we have to be aware of it, keep working with Turkey to try to forestall that kind of action.

FP: Has the administration made any progress on repatriating Islamic State foreign fighters to their home countries?

AK: That’s a huge problem, and that was one that came up in a number of our discussions. Nobody quite knows what to do about it, because there are thousands of foreign fighters, and there are also children, I think I learned there’s something like 40,000 children who are kind of terrorists in waiting. The question is not only where do we take them, but how do we integrate them into the society over there so they don’t grow up to be adherents of ISIS?

FP: What do you think of Trump’s decision to finally nominate acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to become permanent Pentagon chief?

AK: No. 1, I’m glad we’ve got a nominee. I’ll look forward to his confirmation hearing. I questioned him rather sharply a month or so ago on the question of the list of military construction projects that were vulnerable to the president’s emergency declaration. I’ll look forward to following him through the process.

FP: Do you have any concerns about his suitability to the job?

AK: No. One of my routine questions is, “Are you willing to tell the president, no matter who the president is, the unvarnished truth about your area of responsibility?” It is so important, it’s a fundamental principle of leadership for me. People in these positions, particularly dealing with national security, have to be willing to sometimes tell the president something that he or she doesn’t want to hear.

FP: What advice would you give to Shanahan stepping into the job?

AK: I think the most important suggestion I would have, based again on spending the time in Iraq, is continuity of policy. Provide some stability and continuity, predictability. That’s what the Iraqis are looking for, I think. Also, to realize that ISIS is still a threat and that Iraq needs some stability.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication.

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

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