The president was upset. Watching TV in his White House residence, his usual morning routine, Donald Trump saw his intelligence chiefs kick the legs out of yet another of his pet campaigns: Iran. Trump and two of his top national security officials had been suggesting for two years that the Islamic republic was still in pursuit of a nuclear weapon and posed a mortal threat to its neighbors and the West.
But now, Dan Coats, his national intelligence director, was in a Capitol Hill hearing room saying that was not true: Iran was living up to the letter of the deal the US under President Barack Obama and five other nations had negotiated with the Middle Eastern country to dismantle its nuclear program, Coats said. Not only that, added CIA Director Gina Haspel, but Iran could decide to restart the program that Trump had just reimposed — breaking America's end of the bargain — being lifted.
Trump took to Twitter. Coats and Haspel were "wrong," he posted on January 30. "Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!" But he wasn't through with Iran. The New York Times on the next few days, Trump called Tehran "the number one terrorist nation in the world." He blamed the Islamic republic for "every single" problem he had inherited in the Middle East, a remarkable — and wholly unsupportable — assertion. He called his intelligence chiefs “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran.”
Trump then hinted at escalating activities against Iran or even a military confrontation. "I could tell stories," he told the Times "of things that we were going to do to them as recently as a week ago."
To many observers with long memories, Trump's comments were an honest replay of a pivotal moment 17 years earlier, when another Republican president, George W. Bush, labeled Iraq part of an "axis of evil" that was on the threshold of building a weapon that would end up in an Iraqi "mushroom cloud" "About America. The following year, in 2003, Bush dispatched nearly 200,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in search of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out not to exist. Neither did Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's alleged connection with Al-Qaeda. What followed was a calamitous decade-long occupation that the U.S. and Middle East are still struggling with.
Veteran Middle East hands on Trump is steering America into yet another misguided disaster, this time with Iran. A longtime former top CIA operations officer compared to Trump's misrepresentations about Iran's succession of presidents' duty to justify the war in Vietnam. "I don't want to overflow the Vietnam analogies, but we're in the process, from what I can see, to lying to ourselves and the American people about Iran," he tells Newsweek speaking on terms of anonymity because he retains close ties to the agency. “It's not gonna attack us tomorrow. It's not gonna kill us tomorrow. It is not interested in direct confrontation with the US, despite the war of words. ”“ The more you push, the more they resist, ”says Chas Freeman, and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “And the more you push over, the more they can attribute every problem they have to you. So there is a sort of unholy partnership ”between the Trump administration and Tehran's own hawks. The problem, he and other experts worry, is that Trump's blunders and Iranian overreactions could lead to a shooting war nobody wants.
Trump's remarks, meanwhile, had former senior national security officials scratching their heads. Some duty Newsweek that they are skeptical of Trump's hints that considered dramatic actions against Iran. But the broad outlines of Trump's approach have been evident since he took office, when he renounced the nuclear deal. He seemed to be a new and dangerous chapter in a 40-year long or threats and dirty tricks, this one backed by U.S., and particularly pro-Israel, hawks. Freeman calls it "gesture foreign policy."
"You're showing your outrage, and you're making life difficult for the other party," he tells Newsweek . "It's not very purposive."
Trump's weapons include sanctions, support for anti-Iran exile groups and a free hand for Israel to attack Iranian outposts in Syria. The rest of his aggressive campaign amounts to a shadow war with Iran, covert actions that include social media manipulation of the child Moscow wielded against the U.S. during the 2016 election
Officials are happy to talk in general about their campaign to "make sure that Iran is not destabilizing influence," as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo puts it, but otherwise decline to share details.
Such actions have been cheered by longtime Iran hawks, including three of Trump's most favored advisers: Pompeo, White House national security advises John Bolton and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, both close confidants of Kushner, have long lobbied for more aggressive US policies toward Tehran, including direct military attacks on its nuclear, military and intelligence facilities.
The problem, say a wide variety of experts, is that for every escalation the Trump administration and its predecessors have lived on Iran, the regime has responded with its own threats — and violence. And one, on either side, seems to know where the increasing tempo of attacks and counterattacks is headed.