Political pressures, infighting muddle Washington’s reactions towards Iran

A Rasmussen Reports survey in early May indicated that 26% of US voters said Trump is “not aggressive enough” with Iran.
Sunday 19/05/2019
A MH-60S helicopter hovers in the air with an oil tanker in the background as the USS John C. Stennis makes its way to the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, last December. (Reuters)
On the edge. A MH-60S helicopter hovers in the air with an oil tanker in the background as the USS John C. Stennis makes its way to the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, last December. (Reuters)

Despite heightened tensions caused by attacks targeting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Trump administration’s attitude has remained largely restrained with conflicting signals over the possibility of the United States going to war against Iran.

Washington’s wavering reflected domestic pressures against war and differences of opinion in the administration.

The crisis escalated after the United States sent an aircraft carrier group and US Air Force bombers to the Middle East because of what it said were intelligence reports about Iranian threats to US interests in the region after Washington’s tightening of oil sanctions against Tehran.

Tensions increased further when four oil tankers were attacked May 12 off the UAE coast. Although no evidence was given, US investigators, the Associated Press reported, were said to “believe the damage was done by Iranian military divers.”

Two days later, Saudi oil installations were struck by drones in an attack claimed by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman described the attacks as “terrorist acts, ordered by the regime in Tehran and carried out by the Houthis.”  There were calls for stronger action against Iran in pro-government Saudi media.

While US experts and unidentified officials said they saw Iran’s hand in the incidents, reactions in Washington suggested a lack of consensus in the Trump administration.

“Iran’s actions are conducted in a manner which are both understood by the world to be conducted by Iran but not to the extent that the international community can justify a response. In this way, the actions are attributable but deniable,” Norman Roule, a former senior CIA officer with experience in Middle East issues told Reuters.

“Attacks against oil tankers produce tremendous publicity for Iran and raise oil prices. The latter has a direct, if temporary, impact on the economies of China and Western Europe and Iran likely believes this will compel them to pressure the US to make concessions to avoid future such attacks,” he said.

The Washington Post reported infighting in the administration about the issue. Some of Trump’s advisers, such as national security adviser John Bolton, pushed for confrontation and others strongly advised against it.

Bolton had led the US effort for war in Iraq in 2003, as well as a similar push for military action in Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pushed for strong interventions against Iraq and, during congressional testimony in April, refused to say the Trump administration would not use war powers authorisation to order military strikes against Iran.

“There is no infighting, whatsoever,” Trump declared. “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision. It is a very simple process… I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

Trump admitted there were a variety of stances on the issue. “I have different sides. I mean, I have John Bolton and I have other people that are a little more dovish than him. And ultimately I make the decision,” he said.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “Trump is smart to let these advisers play the roles they play and it really does help him lay the table for negotiation but, ultimately, it comes back to his ability to oversee a negotiation and do so wisely and judiciously, and that’s an open question.”

Even Washington’s war plans were confused by the muddle.

British Army Major-General Chris Ghika, who heads the joint task force to combat the Islamic State, said May 14 at the Pentagon that “there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria” but the next day, the United States ordered non-essential personnel to leave the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil.

US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented a plan before the oil tanker attacks to send 120,000 US troops — similar to the number sent to Iraq in 2003 — to the Middle East if Iran attacked US forces or works to increase its nuclear weapons capabilities, the New York Times reported. However, two days later, Trump said there were no plans to send troops to the Middle East.

Pompeo, speaking May 12 in Russia, said the United States would not back down.

“I made clear that the United States will continue to apply pressure to the regime in Tehran until its leadership is prepared to return to the ranks of responsible nations that do not threaten their neighbours or spread instability or terror,” he said.

In Congress, both Democrats and Republicans requested more information from the administration, with some questioning the veracity of intelligence that escalated the tensions.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said he was tired of getting briefings about Iran from the media, rather than from the administration. The Trump administration briefed top US Congress members May 16 in a closed-door session.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who represents California and who was present for the briefing, made it clear that Trump should not act on his own.

“The responsibility in the constitution is for Congress to declare war,” Pelosi said. “So I hope the president’s advisers recognise they have no authorisation to go forward in any way.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination, began a petition to create legislation that would prohibit the administration from military action against Iran without congressional approval.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida on the Foreign Relations Committee, rebuked the idea that officials might be building a false case.

“The idea @POTUS is creating a pretext to start war with #Iran makes no sense,” he wrote on social media. “While I may not agree with him on it, @realdonaldtrump wants to wind down US military presence in Middle East, not expand it.”

Beyond criticism in Congress, Trump sees also little support for war from the American public. Some of his allies said war could hurt Trump in the 2020 election and the shadow of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its repercussions hover over the prospects of US involvement in another Middle East conflict.

A Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey in early May indicated that 25% of likely US voters said Trump is “too aggressive” in his dealings with Iran but that’s down from 36% a year ago just after he pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Just about as many (26%) now say Trump is “not aggressive enough,” up from 14% last May. Thirty-eight percent rated the president’s response as about right.