Since the inauguration, the White House has taken several ham-handed escalatory steps that bring into question whether Trump and his most radical advisors are begging for war with Iran. This would be a disaster of epic scale, perhaps eclipsing the nightmare of the Iraq War. Republicans and Democrats need to start viewing President Trump’s actions and words as a possible accidental or intentional prelude to major conflict, and taking steps to counter this dangerous slide to war.
The descent began with the President’s executive order barring Iranian citizens from entering the United States. Potentially the most dangerous result of the order was to empower the most hardline clerics in Iran—threatening not just our own security, but our ally Israel’s as well.
The danger of including Iran comes in the message it sends to Iranians and its potential to tip the political balance inside Iran to forces that are deeply antithetical to the United States and Israel – the kind of people who actually could start World War III.
The Iranian people, especially the growing numbers of young people in the country, do not hate the United States. They regularly get fed anti-American garbage by the regime, but the young men and women who will inherit Iran largely admire America. This tilt toward the West is what caused the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani to be elected President. It is also what brought Iran to the negotiating table, resulting in the landmark nuclear agreement committing Iran to give up its pathway to a nuclear weapon.
Rouhani said that the Muslim ban was a “great gift to extremists.” He meant groups like ISIS, but he might have also have been referring to extremist political groups in his own country. Why? Because the hardliners in Tehran who want to tear up the nuclear agreement, make Iran a nuclear weapons power, and create havoc in the Middle East will use the Muslim ban as evidence that America does indeed hate Iran.
We watched on Sunday as the hardliners showed off their new strengthened position. The ballistic missile test was a signal that Rouhani is losing power and the anti-Western conservatives are ascendant. This edges us closer to war, but it also endangers our allies in the region, most notably Israel. By and large, Rouhani has dispatched the hateful anti-Israel speech that was a regular part of his predecessor’s rhetorical repertoire. If Rouhani goes, so does any chance at Iranian moderation on Israel.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of reasons to view Tehran as a serious adversary. The government has long been a sponsor of terrorists and radical groups in the Middle East. Most recently, the Iranian government bears responsibility for some of the worst carnage in Syria.
But often lost in the debate in the United States is that Iran has not been associated with direct threats against our country. Though Trump referenced 9/11 several times in rolling out his executive order, not one of the hijackers or plotters was from Iran (wildly, none of the 4 countries of origin of the 9/11 perpetrators are on the list). Iran’s government is full of bad actors, and that’s why we have levied sanctions against their government for its support of terrorism in the Middle East. But Trump claimed the Muslim ban was about protecting against terrorist threats against the United States – and there’s no evidence to suggest that vetted Iranian immigrants pose a threat to Americans.
Making matters worse this week, instead of trying to heal the wounds created by Friday’s executive order, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, doubled down on the path to conflict. Though Trump’s executive order was the proximate cause of the ballistic missile launch, that doesn’t excuse it. Flynn appropriately warned Iran that the test would be met with consequences from the United States and the international community. Though the wording of “putting Iran on notice” was a bit odd, a strong message in the wake of the tests was warranted.
What was exceptional was that Flynn included in the statement a warning to Iran that had nothing to do with the missile tests. “These are just the latest of a series of incidents in the past six months in which Houthi forces that Iran has trained and armed have struck Emirati and Saudi vessels and threatened United States and allied vessels transiting the Red Sea,” he said. Flynn brought the Houthis into the statement in order to warn the Iranians that if the Houthis continued to attack Saudi Arabia, we would consider it a threat to us commensurate to the firing of the ballistic missiles. This is an absurd equivalence argument, and it could lead us into a war that no American is looking for.
Houthi rebels inside Yemen have been at war for two years with Saudi-backed forces that historically have controlled the country’s government. The Houthis are undoubtedly backed by Iran, but they are not a pure Iranian proxy in the way, for instance, that Hezbollah is. The Houthis’ grievances against the ousted Yemeni government were organic, and though Iran helps to fund the rebels, they do not command nor control them.
You wouldn’t know this by listening to his statement, but the United States does not have a security treaty with Saudi Arabia. They are our ally, but they fight their own battles. They are waging war against the Houthis with a reckless bombing campaign (supported by the U.S.) that has killed thousands and thousands of civilians. Some by accident. Some on purpose. The Houthis have fought back – and they too are responsible for scores of civilian deaths.
What was so dangerous about Flynn’s statement was that he is now suggesting that Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia could lead to war between the United States and Iran. This makes no sense.
And it squares with other actions that Trump has authorized in the early days of this administration. Last week, an American Navy Seal and countless Yemeni civilians were killed in a special operations mission against Al Qaeda inside Yemen. It was the first counter-terrorism operation authorized by Trump, and it went very, very badly. According to military sources, it was approved “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”
This showed that Trump is willing to escalate U.S. military activity in Yemen in dangerous ways. Observed in conjunction with Flynn’s statement this week, it makes clear the U.S. is doubling down on our involvement in the Yemen civil war. This would be madness, and Democrats and Republicans who have any influence with the administration need to beg Trump and his team to back off these escalatory moves.
The United States should target extremist groups in Yemen, which are growing stronger largely because of the bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia. But we should stay the hell out of the civil war there. I have long argued that we should cease helping Saudi Arabia in its bombing campaign, but we should not get any more involved in a war between two rival ethnic groups in Yemen when who wins that fight has no meaningful effect on U.S. national security. Yes, it matters to Saudi Arabia who wins that fight, but the transitive property doesn’t apply to foreign relations – not everything that matters to our friends automatically matters to us.
American presidents are supposed to keep us out of war. What is so hard to fathom about the first few weeks of the Trump administration is that every step they have taken seems to get us closer and closer to a conflict with Iran. I hope that is not their goal. I hope that it’s simply a series of mistakes. If it’s the latter, Trump should correct his course right now, or the blood and treasure wasted in an unnecessary conflict with Iran will be entirely of his own making.
Following President Trump’s executive order banning citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., Murphy published “How Trump Just Made America Less Safe.”