Would Trump Really Go to War with Iran?

Two months ago, as the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran was still in its infancy, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) assessed the likelihood of a US-Iran war in the Arabian Gulf. After a few weeks of heated rhetoric and two separate attacks on oil tankers, it is important again to consider what President Donald Trump and his aides are saying and doing to promote or prevent armed conflict and to explore what members of Congress are saying about the specter of war.

A series of attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman have heightened tensions recently and the Trump Administration has consistently blamed Iran for the attacks. In addition, US installations in Iraq have come under fire and the Pentagon has accused Tehran of firing missiles at US drones over Yemen and the Gulf of Oman. Iran is feeling the necessity to lash out against Washington as sanctions constrict its economy and the administration’s bellicose rhetoric begs a response from the regime in Tehran.

As all of this unfolds, President Trump maintains that the United States is “very prepared. Regardless of what goes, we are very, very prepared.” Does this mean he is willing to strike Iran? Is Washington really closer to war?

Hawkish Aides

The most alarming aspect of much of this buildup of tension is that the officials tasked with giving the president sober and informed policy prescriptions are some of the most ideological and aggressive. National Security Advisor John Bolton, for example, is certainly an ideologue when it comes to military action against Iran and he has long been adamant that a military conflict with the Islamic Republic would be easy for the United States to win. But even other officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while not as bent on waging a war, take a very cavalier approach to using military force.

The credibility concerns about Trump’s aides also have some in Washington suspicious that they are trying to lay the groundwork for provoking a fight with Tehran. Secretary Pompeo has flown to Florida to meet with US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East. Furthermore, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale went to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers about the threats Iran poses. The salient issues here are that Pompeo’s visit with the military is unusual and that Hale met only with Republicans, fueling Democrats’ suspicions about the administration’s motives.

Trump the Dove?

The most important actor in this whole debate, of course, is President Trump. He talks tough, with bluster of “fire and fury” on enemies. To be sure, in a limited capacity, the president would likely revel in a show of force (as he did in Syria) against Iran. However, Trump has long been skeptical of large-scale military intervention. And for an adversary like Iran, it is unlikely that the competing power centers in the administration could coalesce around any limited military action that would both satisfy the president and limit US exposure in the region. The likes of Bolton and Pompeo would probably push for action beyond what Trump is comfortable with while career military officials would be less likely to introduce options up to the politicos’ standards. For this reason, if top administration officials propose competing operations to the president, it is safe to surmise that he would opt not to act—or to choose an option that while not increasing the likelihood of negative repercussions, may not be one decisive enough to reach whatever goal this administration is in fact pursuing.

Where Does Congress Stand?

Remarkably, President Trump and his administration have somehow managed to make Iran—a country that has long been in Congress’s crosshairs—a partisan issue. Democrats in both chambers are skeptical of the administration’s motives as well as its assessments of intelligence and, ultimately, its goals and strategies for achieving them. A number of Democratic members have been outspoken about limiting ways the president and his team could start a war. They are considering repealing the 2001 authorization for the use of military force against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan which the administration insists authorizes the use of force against Iran. Others have looked to attach riders to must-pass legislation prohibiting funds from being used to wage military action against Tehran.

Even Republicans are uneasy with the administration’s posture. Many say they support the president’s goals but that they do not necessarily see unilateral military action as the solution. Of course, lawmakers like Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) have accepted the Trump Administration’s assessments about Tehran and say that military strikes would be an appropriate response. Even the hawkish members, however, prefer that the administration try and rally international support for protecting oil tanker assets from Iran and pressuring the regime.

Tensions Are Rising, but No War Just Yet

Ultimately, although tensions rise and Tehran feels more and more compelled to lash out, the prospects of war do not seem to be much greater than before. Barring some serious miscalculation by Iran, the United States will continue to build up personnel in the region—but President Trump seems reluctant to attack Iran for damaging oil tankers. And, despite all of the bluster, there have been somewhat limited communications between Washington and Tehran, with Trump only seriously considering an attack over nuclear weapons and an attack on US troops. One must still be concerned about miscalculations and inadvertent escalation, but it is evident that this discussion is not quite similar to the one leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senate and House NDAA. Over the last week, the House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA; H.R. 2500) while the full Senate is moving to consider and possibly amend its version (S. 1790). Notable developments include language in the House version that calls on the Pentagon to issue a report about chemical weapons in Syria and, in the Senate version, the Defense Department will be granted authorities to help detain Islamic State fighters in Syria. The Senate bill also requires the Pentagon to report about each month that the Saudis and Emiratis fail to repay the costs of aerial refueling, which the United States has done over Yemen.

Bahrain, Qatar Joint Resolutions of Disapproval. As ACW has covered before, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has looked to limit arms sales to nearly every Gulf Arab state and this week he forced votes on two motions to discharge the joint resolutions of disapproval for weapons sales to Qatar (S. Res. 20) and Bahrain (S. Res. 26) from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both motions failed (43-56 and 42-57, respectively).

Condemning the Attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee overseeing the Middle East and North Africa, respectively, introduced H. Res. 441 condemning Hezbollah’s 1994 bombing of an Argentinian Jewish community center.

Reaffirming the Importance of the US in Promoting the Well-Being of Refugees. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) introduced H. Res. 444 reaffirming United States’ commitment to promoting the safety and well-being of refugees and displaced persons around the globe. Lieu specifically highlighted the millions of refugees fleeing Syria and Somalia, among others, to illustrate the gravity of the refugee crisis in recent years.

Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military. On June 18, Republicans in both chambers introduced bills called Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military. The bills say up to 20 percent of US assistance to Lebanon’s military is contingent upon the president certifying that the Lebanese Armed Forces are taking steps to counter Hezbollah.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Write to Merkel on Hezbollah. On June 13, after Germany’s Bundestag failed to vote in favor of designating Lebanese Hezbollah a terrorist group in both its military and political wings, four House members wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressing their concern and urging Germany to reconsider its position on the group.

Rep. Chu Calls on Administration to Ease the Suffering of Syrians in Idlib. On June 14, Rep. Judy Chu (D-California) wrote to the Trump Administration asking it to take steps to ease the suffering of Syrians caught in the fighting in Idlib, including allowing Syrian refugees to enter the United States.

CODELs Scheduled for June, August. Lawmakers are planning for congressional delegation (CODEL) trips to the Middle East in the coming weeks and months. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) is leading a CODEL to the region lasting from late June to early July, though the exact destinations have yet to be confirmed. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) will be also leading a group of at least 10 House members to the region and may very well overlap with Graham’s delegation.

In August, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) American Israel Education Foundation will be sponsoring a trip to Israel, led by Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer (Maryland) and Hakeem Jeffries (New York). Hoyer told reporters it will be one of the largest delegations he has led and will include a number of freshman House Democrats.

3) Hearings and Briefings

What “Emergency”? Arms Sales and the Administration’s Dubious End-Around Congress. On June 12, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a hearing to question Clarke Cooper, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, about the administration’s recent decision declaring an “emergency” to expedite weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. Cooper came under fierce criticism for the administration’s decision, but he largely conveyed the message that the move was necessary due to Congress’s opposition to the proposed sales.

Hidden: Landmines in Yemen. On June 13, the Embassy of Yemen in Washington, DC held a briefing on Capitol Hill for congressional staff and members of the public to explore the devastating use of landmines in Yemen and efforts taken to clean up the weapons from the country to prevent further injuries and casualties.

4) Nominations

Trump Nominates Ambassador to Oman; SFRC to Vet UN Ambassador. On June 18, President Trump tapped career State Department official Leslie Tsou to serve as US ambassador to Oman. In addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFC) will hold a nomination hearing for Kelly Craft to be US ambassador to the United Nations.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Jason Greenblatt Writes in Defense of Bahrain Workshop. On June 16, Jason Greenblatt, one of the architects of the administration’s supposed “peace plan,” took to CNN to write in defense of the upcoming Bahrain “workshop” for Palestinian economic empowerment. Despite Greenblatt’s insistence that the administration’s plan will be better than the “failed proposals” before, he told Haaretz that the unveiling of the plan will likely be postponed yet again, this time until November.

Trump Gets “Trump Heights” in Israeli-Occupied Syrian Territory. In honor of Trump’s decision to recognize the occupied Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory, the Israeli government will reportedly be honoring the president by naming the new “Trump Heights” settlement, to be built in the Golan, after him.

2) Department of State

Trump Taps New Special Envoy for Sudan. Amid the military crackdown on peaceful protests in Sudan, the US government has finally appointed a special envoy to serve as the lead official handling the Sudanese portfolio. Ambassador Donald Booth will return to the post after having served as a special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan for four years under President Barack Obama. Booth traveled to Sudan last week with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy.

State Department Officials Attend Workshops on Joint Economic, Counterterrorism Activities. Over the last week, State Department officials have been involved in a pair of workshops focusing on economic and counterterrorism developments. Senior officials from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs hosted a delegation from Tunisia for the second session of the US-Tunisia Joint Economic Commission. In addition, a delegation of State Department officials traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a workshop that brought the United States together with Central and South American states for the purpose of “countering Hezbollah’s terrorist and illicit activities in the Western Hemisphere.”

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister, EU High Representative. After two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman—attacks that Secretary Pompeo blamed on Iran—Pompeo called Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to reiterate the two governments’ mutual interest in countering Iranian threats.

Pompeo also met with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, to discuss Iran and, among other things, the situation in Libya.

Pompeo Reportedly Blocks Inclusion of Saudi Arabia’s Use of Child Soldiers.  On June 19, Secretary Pompeo will unveil the State Department’s annual “Trafficking in Persons” report. Even before the release, reports say that Pompeo took the remarkable step of overruling top State Department officials to keep Saudi Arabia off the list. Riyadh has been accused of using child soldiers from Sudan’s Darfur in Yemen and, if critics are to be believed, Pompeo refused to name the Saudis to avoid the mandatory freeze of US assistance.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Shanahan Out at Pentagon. This week President Trump announced that Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was withdrawing from consideration for the full-time position and was leaving his post. Secretary of the Army Mark  Esper is set to fill the role of acting secretary.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here