Noam Chomsky: Trump Is Trying to Exploit Tension With Iran for 2020

“Any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction could be alleviated by the single means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East,” says legendary public intellectual Noam Chomsky, but that isn’t stopping the Trump administration from concocting stories about Iran threatening to “conquer the world” in order to escalate tensions and thereby strengthen Trump’s hand going into the 2020 election.

In this exclusive transcript of a conversation aired on Alternative Radio, Noam Chomsky — the brilliant MIT professor and linguist who in one index is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Shakespeare and Marx — discusses Iran’s military deterrence strategy and the actions taken by U.S. leaders who cannot countenance what the State Department describes as Iran’s “successful defiance.”

David Barsamian: Let’s talk about Iran, in particular, locating it in post-1945 U.S. foreign policy. Washington laid out its Grand Area Strategy and Iran takes on enormous significance because of its oil wealth.

The basic idea of the early stage of the Grand Strategy and the early stages of the war were that the U.S. would take over what they called the Grand Area, of course, the Western Hemisphere, the former British Empire and the Far East. They assumed at that time that Germany would probably win the war, so there would be two major powers, one German-based with a lot of Eurasia and the U.S. with this Grand Area. By the time it was clear that the Russians would defeat Germany, after Stalingrad and then the great tank battle in Kursk, the planning was modified, and the idea was that the Grand Area would include as much of Eurasia as possible, of course, maintaining control of Middle East oil resources.

There was a conflict over Iran right at the end of the Second World War. The Russians supported a separatist movement in the north. The British wanted to maintain control. The Russians were essentially expelled. Iran was a client state under British control. There was, however, a nationalist movement, and the Iranian leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, led a movement to try to nationalize Iranian oil.

The British, obviously, didn’t want that. They tried to stop this development, but they were in their post-war straits and were unable to do it. They called in the U.S., which basically took the prime role in implementing a military coup which deposed the parliamentary regime and installed the Shah, who was a loyal client. Iran remained one of the pillars of control of the Middle East as long as the Shah remained in power. The Shah had very close relations with Israel, the second pillar of control. They were not formal because theoretically, the Islamic states were supposed to be opposed to Israeli occupation, but the relations were extremely close. They were revealed in detail after the Shah fell. The third pillar of U.S. control was Saudi Arabia, so there was kind of a tacit alliance between Iran and Israel and, even more tacit, Israel and Saudi Arabia, under U.S. aegis.

In 1979, the Shah was overthrown. The U.S. at first considered trying to implement a military coup that would restore the Shah’s regime. That didn’t work. Then came the hostage crisis. Iraq, shortly after — under Saddam Hussein — invaded Iran. The U.S. strongly supported the Iraqi invasion, finally even pretty much intervening directly to protect Iraqi shipping in the Gulf. A U.S. missile cruiser shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing 290 people in commercial air space. Finally, the U.S. intervention pretty much convinced the Iranians, if not to capitulate, then to accept an arrangement far less than they hoped after the Iraqi aggression. It was a murderous war. Saddam used chemical weapons. The U.S. pretended not to know about it — in fact, tried to blame Iran for it. But there was finally a peace agreement.

The U.S. at once turned to sanctions against Iran and severe threats. This was now the first Bush. His administration also invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in nuclear weapons production, which, of course, was a serious threat to Iran.

It’s kind of ironic that when Iran was a loyal client state under the Shah in the 1970s, the Shah and other high officials made it very clear that they were working to develop nuclear weapons. At that time, Kissinger and Rumsfeld and Cheney were pressuring American universities, primarily MIT — there was a big flap on campus about this — to bring Iranian nuclear engineers to the U.S. for training, though, of course, they knew they were developing nuclear weapons. Actually, Kissinger was asked later why he changed his attitude toward Iranian nuclear weapons development in later years when, of course, it became a big issue, and he said, very simply, they were an ally then.

The sanctions against Iran got harsher, more intense. There were negotiations about dealing with the Iranian nuclear programs. According to U.S. intelligence, after 2003, there was no evidence that Iran had nuclear weapons programs, but probably they were developing what’s called a nuclear capability, which many countries have; that is, the capacity to produce nuclear weapons if the occasion arises. As Iran was rapidly increasing its capacities, more centrifuges and so on, Obama finally agreed to the joint agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015.

Since then, according to U.S. intelligence, Iran has completely lived up to it. There is no indication of any Iranian violation. The Trump administration pulled out of it and has now sharply escalated the sanctions against Iran. Now there is a new pretext: It’s not nuclear weapons; it’s that Iran is meddling in the region.

Unlike the U.S.

Or every other country. In fact, what they’re saying is Iran is attempting to extend its influence in the region. It has to become what Secretary of State Pompeo called a “normal country,” like us, Israel and others, and never try to expand its influence. Essentially, it’s saying, just capitulate. Pompeo particularly has said that U.S. sanctions are designed to try to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. The U.S. has extraterritorial influence: It forces other countries to accept U.S. sanctions under threat that they will be excluded from the U.S. market and, in particular, from financial markets, which are dominated by the U.S. So the U.S., as the world’s leading rogue state, enforces its own unilateral decisions on others, thanks to its power. Bolton, of course, as he has said, just wants to bomb them.

My speculation is that a lot of the fist-waving at the moment is probably for two reasons: one, to try to keep Iran off balance and intimidated, and also to intimidate others so that they don’t try to interfere with U.S. sanctions; but I think it’s largely domestic. If the Trump strategists are thinking clearly — and I assume they are — the best way to approach the 2020 election is to concoct major threats all over: immigrants from Central America coming here to commit genocide against white Americans, Iran about to conquer the world, China doing this and that. But we will be saved by our bold leader with the orange hair, the one person who is capable of defending us from all of these terrible threats, not like these women who “won’t know how to do anything,” or “sleepy” Joe or “crazy” Bernie. That’s the best way to move into an election. That means maintaining tensions, but not intending to actually go to war.

Unfortunately, it’s bad enough in itself. We have absolutely zero right to impose any sanctions on Iran. None. It’s taken for granted in all discussion that somehow this is legitimate. There is absolutely no basis for that. But also, tensions can easily blow up. Anything could happen. An American ship in the Gulf could hit a mine, let’s say, and some commander would say, “OK, let’s retaliate against an Iranian installation,” and then an Iranian ship could shoot a missile. Pretty soon, you’re off and running. So, it could blow up.

Meanwhile, there are horrible effects all over the place, the worst in Yemen, where our client, Saudi Arabia, with strong U.S. support — arms, intelligence — along with its brutal UAE ally, is in fact creating what the UN has described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” It’s pretty clear; it’s not really controversial what’s happening. If there is a confrontation with Iran, the first victim will be Lebanon. As soon as there’s any threat of war, Israel will certainly be unwilling to face the danger of Hezbollah missiles, which are probably scattered all around Lebanon by now. So it’s very likely that the first step prior to direct conflict with Iran would be essentially to wipe out Lebanon or something like it.

And those missiles in Lebanon are from Iran.

They come from Iran, yes.

So, what is Iran’s strategy in the region? You hear this term, the “Shi’a arc,” the Shi’a population in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria.

The Shi’a arc is a Jordanian concoction. Of course, Iran, like every other power, is trying to extend its influence. It’s doing it, typically, in the Shi’a areas, naturally. It’s a Shi’ite state. In Lebanon, we don’t have detailed records because they can’t take a census — it would break down the fragile relationship that exists there in the sectarian system — but it’s pretty clear that the Shi’ite population is the largest of the sectarian groups.

They have a political representative, Hezbollah, which is in the parliament. Hezbollah developed as a guerilla force. Israel was occupying southern Lebanon after its 1982 invasion. This was in violation of U.N. orders, but they pretty much stayed there, in part through a proxy army. Hezbollah finally drove Israel out. That turned them into a “terrorist force.” You’re not allowed to drive out the invading army of a client state, obviously.

Since then, Hezbollah serves Iranian interests. It sent fighters to Syria, who are a large part of the support for the Assad government. Technically, that’s quite legal. That was the recognized government. It’s a rotten government, so you can, on moral grounds, say you shouldn’t do it, but you can’t say on legal grounds you shouldn’t. The U.S. was openly trying to overthrow the government. It’s not secret. Finally, it became clear that the Assad government would control Syria. There are a few pockets still left unresolved, the Kurdish areas and others, but it’s pretty much won the war, which means that Russia and Iran have the dominant role in Syria.

In Iraq, there is a Shi’ite majority, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq pretty much handed the country over to Iran. It had been a Sunni dictatorship, but, of course, with the Sunni dictatorship destroyed, the Shi’a population gained a substantial role. So, for example, when ISIS [also known as Daesh] came pretty close to conquering Iraq, it was the Shi’ite militias that drove them back, with Iranian support. The U.S. participated, but secondarily. Now they have a strong role in the government. In the U.S., this is considered more Iranian meddling. But I think Iran’s strategy is pretty straightforward: It’s to expand their influence as they can in the region.

As far as their military posture is concerned, I don’t see any reason to question the analysis of U.S. intelligence. It seems pretty accurate. In their presentations to Congress, they point out that Iran has very low military expenditures by the standards of the region, much less than the other countries — dwarfed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, of course Israel — and that its military doctrine is essentially defensive, designed to deter an invasion long enough for diplomatic efforts to be initiated. According to U.S. intelligence, if they have a nuclear weapons program — which we have no reason to believe they do, but if they do — it would be part of their deterrent strategy.

That’s the real Iranian threat: It has a deterrent strategy. For the states that want to be free to rampage in the region, deterrence is an existential threat. You don’t want to be deterred; you want to be able to do what you would like. That’s primarily the U.S. and Israel, who want to be free to act forcefully in the region without any deterrent. To be accurate, that’s the real Iranian threat. That’s what the State Department calls “successful defiance.” That’s the term the State Department used to explain back in the early 1960s why we cannot tolerate the Castro regime, because of its “successful defiance” of the U.S. That’s absolutely intolerable if you intend to be able to rule the world, by force, if necessary.

And it seems a component of that is the threat of a good example.

There’s also that, but I don’t think that’s true in the case of Iran. It’s a miserable government. The Iran government is a threat to its own people. I think that’s fair enough to say. And it’s not a real model for anyone. Cuba was quite different. In fact, if you look back in the early 1960s at the internal documents that have been declassified, there was great concern that — as Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s close adviser, particularly on Latin American affairs, said — the problem with Cuba is “the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands,” which has great appeal to others in the region who are suffering from the same circumstances as Cuba was under the U.S.-backed Batista regime.

That’s dangerous. The idea that people have the right to take things into their own hands and separate themselves from U.S. domination is not going to be acceptable. That’s successful defiance.

Another theme that plays out post-1945 is Washington’s resistance to independent nationalism.

Yes. But that’s automatic for a hegemonic power. The same with Britain, when it was running most of the world; the same with France and its domains. You don’t want independent nationalism. In fact, it’s often made quite explicit. Right after the Second World War, when the U.S. was beginning to try to organize the post-war world, the first concern was to make sure that the Western Hemisphere was totally under control.

In February 1945, the U.S. called a hemispheric conference in Chapultepec, Mexico. The main theme of the conference was precisely what you described: It was to end any kind of “economic nationalism.” That was the phrase that was used. The State Department internally warned that Latin American countries are infected — I’m virtually quoting now — “by the idea of a new nationalism,” which meant that the people of the country should be the first beneficiaries of the country’s resources. Obviously, that’s totally intolerable. The first beneficiaries have to be U.S. investors. That’s the philosophy of the new nationalism, and that has to be crushed. And the Chapultepec conference, in fact, made it explicit that economic nationalism would not be tolerated.

So, for example, to take a case that was discussed, Brazil, a major country, could produce steel, but not the high-quality steel of the kind that the U.S. would specialize in. Incidentally, there is, as always, one unmentioned exception to the rules. The U.S. is permitted to follow policies of economic nationalism. In fact, the U.S. was pouring government resources massively into development of what became the high-tech economy of the future: computers, the internet, and so on. That’s the usual exception. But for the others, they can’t succumb to this idea that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources should be the people of that country. That’s intolerable. This is framed in all sorts of nice rhetoric about free markets and so on and so forth, but the meaning is quite explicit.

You’ve often quoted George Kennan, the venerated State Department official, in his famous 1948 memo: “We have 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.” That was 1948. I was interested to discover that two years later, he made a statement about Latin America to the effect of, “The protection of our raw materials” in the rest of the world, particularly in Latin America, would trump concern over what he called “police repression.”

He said police repression may be necessary to maintain control over “our resources.” Remember that he was at the dovish extreme of the policy spectrum, in fact, so much so that he was kicked out about that time and replaced by a hardliner, Paul Nitze. He was considered “too soft” for this tough world. His estimate of the U.S. having 50 percent of the world’s resources is probably exaggerated now that more careful work has been done. The statistics aren’t great for that period, but there are studies. It was probably less than that. However, it may be true today in a different sense. In the contemporary period of globalization, global supply chains, national accounts, meaning the country’s share of global GDP, is much less relevant than it used to be.

A much more relevant measure of a country’s power is the wealth controlled by domestically based multinational corporations. There, what you find is that U.S. corporations own about 50 percent of world wealth. Now, there are good statistics. There are studies of this by a very good political economist, Sean Kenji Starrs, who has several articles and a new book coming out on it with extensive details. As he points out, this is a degree of control of the international economy that has absolutely no parallel or counterpart in history, in fact. It will be interesting to see what the impact is of Trump’s wrecking ball on all of this, which is breaking the system of global supply chains that have been carefully developed over the years. It may have some impact. We really don’t know. So far, it’s just harming the global economy.

Getting back to Iran, you mentioned in our book Global Discontents that, “Any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction could be alleviated by the single means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East.” This is almost on the level of samizdat. It’s barely known or reported on.

It’s not a secret. And it’s not just Iran’s call. This proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East and extended to WMD-free zone, that actually comes from the Arab states. Egypt and others initiated that back in the early 1990s. They called for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. There are such zones that have been established in several parts of the world. It’s kind of interesting to look at them. They aren’t fully operative because the U.S. has not accepted them, but they’re theoretically there. The one for the Middle East would be extremely important.

The Arab states pushed for this for a long time. The nonaligned countries, the G-77 — that’s by now about 130 countries — have called for it strongly. Iran strongly called for it while serving as spokesperson for the G-77. Europe pretty much supports it. Probably not England, but others. In fact, there is almost total global support for it, adding to it an inspection regime of a kind which already exists in Iran. That would essentially eliminate any concern over not only nuclear weapons, but weapons of mass destruction.

There’s only one problem: The U.S. won’t allow it. This comes up regularly at the regular review sessions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the most recent in 2015. Obama blocked it. And everybody knows exactly why. Nobody will say, of course. But if you look at the arms-control journals or professional journals, they’re quite open about it, because it’s obvious. If there were such an agreement, Israel’s nuclear weapons would come under international inspection. The U.S. would be compelled to formally acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons. Of course, it knows that it does, everybody does, but you’re not allowed to formally acknowledge it. For a good reason. If you formally acknowledge it, U.S. aid to Israel has to terminate under U.S. law. Of course, you can find ways around it; you can always violate your own laws. But that does become a problem. It would mean that Israel’s weapons would have to be inspected — not just nuclear, but also biological and chemical. That’s intolerable, so we can’t allow that. Therefore, we can’t move toward a WMD-free zone, which would end the problem.

There is another thing that you can only read in samizdat. The U.S. has a special commitment to this, a unique commitment, along with Britain. The reason is that when the U.S. and Britain were planning the invasion of Iraq, they sought desperately to find some legal cover for it so it wouldn’t look like just direct aggression. They appealed to a U.N. Security Council resolution in 1991 which called on Saddam Hussein to end his nuclear weapons programs, which in fact he had done. But the pretext was he hadn’t done it, so he had violated that resolution; therefore, that was supposed to give some legitimacy to the invasion.

If you bother reading that U.N. resolution, when you get down to Article 14, it commits the signers, including the U.S. and Britain, to work for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. So the U.S. and Britain have a unique responsibility to do this. Try to find any discussion of this. And, of course, it could resolve whatever problem one thinks there is. In fact, according to U.S. intelligence, there is essentially none.

The real problem is pretty much what U.S. intelligence describes, the Iranian posture of deterrence. That is a real danger and is constantly regarded as an existential threat to Israel and the U.S., which cannot tolerate deterrence.

There are big paydays for a militaristic foreign policy such as the U.S. has. For example, Lee Fang, writing in The Intercept, reports, “Large weapons manufacturers,” like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, “have told their investors that escalating conflict with Iran could be good for business.”

Of course, it is. That’s a factor. I don’t think it’s the major factor, but it certainly is a factor. It’s what’s called “good for the economy” if you can produce material goods that you can sell to other countries. The U.S. is preeminent in military force. That’s its real comparative advantage — military force. Other countries can produce computers and TVs, but the U.S. is the largest arms exporter. Its military budget overwhelms anything in the rest of the world. In fact, it’s almost as large as the rest of the world combined, much larger than other countries’. The U.S. increase in the military budget under Trump — the increase — is greater than the entire Russian military budget. China is way behind. And, of course, the U.S. is way more technologically advanced in military hardware. So that’s the U.S. comparative advantage. You would naturally want to pursue it. But I think the major thing is just ensuring that the world remains pretty much under control.

Iran’s Uranium Enrichment Breaks Nuclear Deal Limit. Here’s What That Means

An Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through a uranium conversion facility in 2005. Iran says it is now enriching uranium above the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal.

Vahid Salemi/AP

Updated on Monday at 12:40 p.m. ET

Iran has crossed another line set in the 2015 nuclear deal between it and major world powers.

According to state media, Iran has begun enriching uranium above levels enshrined in the agreement. The move sends a signal that Iran is losing patience with a deal that has not provided the economic relief promised, more than a year after the United States withdrew from the agreement.

By Monday, Iran had reached levels of around 4.5% enrichment, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the semiofficial Fars news agency. He warned that Iran could go as high as 20% in the future, though that level is “not needed now.”

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran has crossed the line.

On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said Iran would go over some other unspecified limit again in 60 days, raising pressure on diplomatic negotiations.

“This is to protect the nuclear deal, not to nullify it. … This is an opportunity for talks. And if our partners fail to use this opportunity, they should not doubt our determination to leave the deal,” Araghchi said.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to keep its enrichment of uranium below 3.67% purity. It was one of several limits set in an effort to keep Iran at least a year away from accumulating enough material with which to build a nuclear bomb.

In exchange for holding down enrichment levels, Iran was supposed to see economic sanctions lifted and more opportunities for trade. But the U.S. reimposed the sanctions it had promised to lift and is demanding that other countries cut off most business with Iran. The Trump administration says it’s trying to force Iran to renegotiate a tougher deal and change its behavior in the Middle East.

Now, Iran is hurting for cash as oil and other exports dwindle.

Iran says it will stop meeting its commitments under the nuclear deal unless European countries and other trade partners find a way to provide the economic benefits it was originally promised.

What is enrichment anyway?

Uranium is found in nature, but not all uranium is useful as a nuclear fuel. One particular isotope, uranium-235, can be used to power nuclear reactors and bombs.

Uranium-235 makes up only about 0.7% of the uranium that’s dug out of the ground. Enrichment is the process of concentrating the uranium-235 to higher levels.

At about 3% to 5%, enriched uranium can be used for nuclear power reactors of the sort that exist in many nations all over the world.

At 20%, it’s used in certain kinds of research reactors, which are less common.

Closer to 90% is considered weapons grade.

Iran is one of only a few nations that possesses enrichment technology.

To what level is Iran enriching its uranium?

Before the nuclear deal, Iran had begun enriching large quantities of uranium to nearly 20%. For technical reasons, the gap from 20% to 90% is relatively small, and most experts agreed that the country was within weeks or a few months of getting material for a bomb, if it decided to “sprint” toward such a goal.

But Iran never did. Instead, it opted to surrender a large quantity of its 20% enriched uranium in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The uranium was diluted and then exported to Russia, according to Corey Hinderstein, vice president for international fuel cycle strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former Obama administration official who helped oversee the deal.

Iran also shut down some of the equipment used to enrich uranium — devices known as centrifuges.

Under the deal, Iran continued to enrich, but it stopped at the limit set in the agreement. “That limit, 3.67%, is in the Iran nuclear deal, and it’s there for a reason,” Hinderstein says. It was one of the numbers that kept Iran from producing a bomb quickly.

After Trump was elected, Iran kept to the deal in the hopes that the other parties, including Europe, China and Russia, would continue to provide economic benefits. But the Trump administration has threatened secondary sanctions on any entity that does business with Iran.

Now Iran says it is enriching past the levels set by the agreement.

Technically, it can be done with no modifications to Iran’s enrichment setup, says Houston Wood, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. “It’s a really simple thing for them to do.”

Didn’t Iran cross another line recently?

In addition to being required to keep its enrichment levels low, Iran was also restricted in how much uranium it could have. Under the agreement, it could have no more than 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of 3.67% enriched uranium.

On July 1, Iran said that it had exceeded the 300-kilogram cap. The International Atomic Energy Agency later confirmed that Iran had crossed that line.

So is Iran within “weeks” of getting enough material for a nuclear weapon again?

No. It will take Iran time to enrich uranium back to higher levels and to accumulate enough enriched uranium for a weapon.

Because of the way the nuclear deal was structured, Iran is still about a year away from getting the material together again, according to Hinderstein. But that time will likely shrink in coming months, unless the deal can be salvaged.

Iran continues to officially maintain that its program is peaceful and that it does not want a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran that was active until the mid-2000s.

Is there any way to stop Iran from going down this road?

Iran has said it is willing to go back to the deal if it is given the economic benefits it was promised. That will be difficult as long as the U.S. continues to enforce strict sanctions on the nation.

But there is not another obvious way to stop Iran from accumulating dangerous levels of nuclear material. Sabotage efforts and assassinations have slowed the country’s program in the past, but such methods have been unable to stop Iran outright.

Similarly, military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably set the program back, but only temporarily. “You just can’t bomb their program out of existence,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “I think what you’re left with is negotiations.”

Donald Trump wanted a big patriotic spectacle: All he got was a damp firecracker

Trump yearned for a show along the lines of North Korea or the Soviet Union. Mercifully, America doesn’t do that

JULY 5, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)
One of the more insignificant myths of the Donald Trump presidency is the one that claims he was inspired to order a magnificent military parade in Washington after viewing the Bastille Day celebration in France in 2017. It’s true that Trump was excited by that parade was very excited by it and started making plans for a D.C. version on his way to the airport in Paris. But Trump had wanted the big tanks and marching soldiers and flyovers well before that.

According to the Huffington Post, he had requested a full-dress military parade for his inauguration and was told it couldn’t be done because of the infrastructure in D.C. He explained to the Washington Post around the same time that he had big plans for the future:

“Being a great president has to do with a lot of things, but one of them is being a great cheerleader for the country. And we’re going to show the people as we build up our military, we’re going to display our military. That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military.”

So he’s wanted this for a long time, probably since he was a kid. Like his BFF Kim Jong-un, he believes that Big Military Pageants are a sign of strength and will instill fear in the hearts of his enemies.

The U.S. doesn’t do that stuff for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that we aren’t supposed to be a military dictatorship that uses military pageants to scare its own citizens. Donald Trump may be the only person on the planet who believes the United States of America needs to prove its military might to the world with a big show of heavy armor and airplanes. Everyone else is fully aware that the U.S. has the most advanced, sophisticated and fearsome military on earth.

Trump alone believes that America has long been perceived as weak and poor and without defenses, and that the way to get respect once again is to spend lavishly on the military, start an incoherent trade war, suck up to every strongman dictator around the globe and tear up as many treaties and international agreements as possible while offending all our allies.  If giving him a parade would stop him from doing all that, maybe we should have one once a month.


In the days leading up to Trump’s July 4 event, the press reported that the administration was scrambling to put this thing together at the last minute. The military wasn’t receiving intelligible instructions, there were many extra tickets, the airports were going to be closed and nobody knew if the roads and bridges in the D.C. area could hold the weight of tanks. We don’t normally do that sort of thing in the nation’s capital. And, needless to say, another corruption scandal erupted when it was revealed that the White House had enlisted the Republican National Committee to pass out VIP tickets to donors and friends of the president’s re-election campaign, just one in a long list of examples of using taxpayer money for political purposes.

And Trump has now tarnished the military, one of the last institutions in America that most people still hold in some regard, using it as a cheap prop to make himself look like one of the strongmen he reveres. At one point during his Thursday speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the fortunate son who got five deferments during the Vietnam War (including the famous, and likely fake, “bone spurs” medical excuse) actually exhorted young people to join the military “and make a great statement in life — and you should do it.” None of his kids ever joined the military either, of course. It was recently reported that Trump’s child support agreement for his daughter Tiffany stipulated that he would withhold all money if she joined the military.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump often complained about “the generals,” wondering why we don’t see the likes of George Patton and Douglas MacArthur anymore. He frequently shared the apocryphal story of Gen. Jack Pershing mass murdering Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, applauding his willingness to win by any means necessary. (This almost certainly did not happen.) Just this week, Trump congratulated an accused war criminal, Navy SEAL Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, taking credit for his acquittal before a military court and basically slapping the military command down for having prosecuted him in the first place.

In the day to day, Trump treated Gold Star families with contempt, insulted POWs and other war heroes and played politics with thousands of troops, sending them to the border for no good reason. But he loves the pomp and pageantry of the military and the idea that it makes him look like a big strong man to be commander in chief. On Thursday at Lincoln Memorial he used military officers as cheap props, forcing them to stand beside him on the dais, appropriating their apolitical status for his own partisan purposes. On the Fourth of July.

His crowd loved it, of course. For all the talk about Trump and his followers being isolationist and anti-war, they are not. The right wing is the most militaristic faction in American life and they will happily follow him into any war he wants to wage. At the moment Trump is confused about all that. He’s been listening to the likes of Tucker Carlson, who is telling him that Republicans don’t like war (and the Democrats do), but understands on a visceral level that something about that doesn’t scan. Like all chickenhawks of the Vietnam era he wants to be seen as a heroic tough guy, but is scared to actually fight a war. So instead of giving his followers a war, he gave them a show.

Donald Trump is basically a carnival barker and a circus promoter. He’s just not a very good one. Just as his wildly expensive and amateurishly produced inaugural was basically a bust, so too was his big “Salute to America.” In fact, it was a sad and pathetic flop. What he had imagined as a grand display of military might along the lines of the Soviet-era May Day parades or  Kim Jong-un’s North Korean tributes to Dear Leader ended up being a half-hearted air show with a handful of aircraft from each of the branches, accompanied by a fifth-grade primer on American history. It wasn’t a normal Trump rally, but it wasn’t a moving patriotic moment either.

As much as Trump tried to make it all a glorious paean to his leadership with the Blue Angels flying in formation over the Capitol to the strains of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the timing was off, the sky was drizzling and the energy was low. Unfortunately for Trump, his old nemesis John McCain had the last laugh. Again.


Trump’s July 4 extravaganza sets a political trap

And by serving as the arbiter of patriotism — as he did during the controversy over kneeling NFL players — and as a strong commander-in-chief, Trump is also laying a political trap.
On national TV, he can pose once again as the patriotic and defiant scourge of elites who sneer at the values of heartland Americans — the strategy he used to win election in 2016 and on which he is banking to claim a second term.
In a pair of tweets Wednesday, Trump hinted that the evening’s themes will be closely aligned to his reelection message.
“Our July 4th Salute to America at the Lincoln Memorial is looking to be really big. It will be the show of a lifetime!” the President wrote.
“We have the greatest economy anywhere in the world. We have the greatest military anywhere in the world. Not bad!” he continued in another tweet.
Given that Trump has made his presidency an exercise in self-flattery and has rarely striven for national unity, the omens are not looking great for a heartwarming non-partisan evening.
This, after all, is a President who gave a raging political speech at a Scout jamboree and turnedthe CIA’s memorial wall into the backdrop for a partisan rally the day after he was sworn in.
As well as indulging his narcissism, the July Fourth event is highlighting his typical profligacy with public money, questionable ethics, a lack of transparency and a measure of chaos in the last minute organization.
The actual cost of all the extra security — a flight time for the aircraft used as Air Force One that is expected to buzz the crowd — has not yet been released by the White House.
“The American people deserve to know how much of their money the president is spending to turn their July 4th celebration into a de facto campaign rally,” three Democratic lawmakers saidin a letter to the Interior Department.
In the post-9/11 era, presidents have generally entertained service members and their families at private events at the White House.
But Republican operatives are also handing out tickets to VIPs and donors as well as general admission entry for Trump’s speech in the rarified historic air near the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. orated his “dream.” Normally, the spot where Trump’s stage stands is one of the best spots to watch the July Fourth fireworks.

White House questions patriotism of critics

As with his plan to change Air Force One’s livery, the President is attempting to impose his own definition of patriotism and is using the military as a political backdrop — a familiar ploy.
“The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World. Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!” Trump tweeted.
The President’s repeated veneration of America’s armed forces can come across as hypocritical given that he did not serve and agreed with Howard Stern that sexually transmitted diseases represented his own personal Vietnam. He’s also not shied away from attacking military heroes for political gain: He can’t let go of his feud with John McCain — even though the Arizona senator, Vietnam prisoner of war and war hero died nearly a year ago.
Though many find Trump’s showmanship distasteful, it’s often rooted in a shrewd political hunch. Images of the commander-in-chief framed by the Stars and Stripes will go nicely in the campaign video library he is building to help his reelection.
And anyone who dissents — including media organizations that are his favorite targets — can be branded disrespectful of the troops and unpatriotic.
“You know what happened July 4, 1776?” White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway asked a reporter in front of the White House Tuesday. “Because it doesn’t sound like you’re even talking about the patriotism that undergirds it.”
Trump has promised a unifying speech to all of the nation, as if his mere presence at the event was not carving yet another line right down the middle of the country. But when asked Monday whether he was capable of a July Fourth speech that unites all Americans, Trump appeared to indicate he would take the partisan tone that he can rarely resist.
“What the Democrats plan is going to destroy the country and it is going to be horrible health care, horrible health care and everybody’s taxes will go to 95%,” he said.

The President wanted his own parade

Trump’s idea for a big July Fourth spectacular appears to have originated on the Champs Elysees in Paris when he accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron to Bastille Day celebrations.
It may also be a way to placate his festering anger at reports that showed Barack Obama’s inaugural crowd in 2008 to be larger than his own. After all, hundreds of thousands of people show up at the July Fourth fireworks, clogging the Mall and surrounding streets.
The President’s plans for a vast American parade were confounded by spiraling costs and the logistical reality that the tracks of armored tanks would plow up Washington’s roads — the tanks in Trump’s July Fourth display will be on a static display — but he never let go of the idea of a big patriotic party.
Some critics blanch at the notion of the armed forces brought into Trump’s celebration. Retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal suggested that the values of citizenship and service could also be observed by honoring Peace Corps volunteers for instance.
“Tanks, planes, they are things, they are not the sinew of the nation,” McChrystal told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
McChrystal said that US armed forces proved their prowess on the battlefield: “I don’t think we need to bring them onto the National Mall to justify their effectiveness,” he said.
After a foreign trip in which Trump once cozied up to autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, his July Fourth parade may set off sinister echoes and raise questions about the optics of military might on the capital’s streets.
After all, military parades are a staple of dictatorships. In places like China, North Korea and the former Soviet Union, such displays were as much an instrument of domestic repression as a sign to adversaries of overwhelming military strength.
The military parades and pageantry that Trump also admires in France and Britain meanwhile are hardly a display of current power — they more often highlight the past military glories of long past colonial eras that are anathema to the values of July Fourth.

Military chiefs have concerns about politicization of Trump’s July 4th event

(CNN)Military chiefs have concerns about the politicization of President Donald Trump’s July 4 event, a source with direct knowledge told CNN.

The US military is expected to be front and center during Thursday’s event, which will showcase a wide variety of weaponry, including M1 Abrams tanks, and has taken on a political hue, with the Republican National Committee distributing tickets in a special VIP area.
In the planning for the event, Pentagon leaders had reservations about putting tanks or other armored vehicles on display, the source said.
As the final details come together, several top military chiefs of the individual services are not attending and instead are sending alternates in their place, though some say they had prior plans.
The private concerns contrast sharply with Trump’s claim Tuesday that “the Pentagon and our great Military Leaders are thrilled” to be participating in his revamped Fourth of July celebrations, which will also feature “incredible flyovers,” fireworks and a speech he’ll deliver.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, will attend. But Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, is on an overseas USO tour that was planned since May and Gen. David Goldfein, the chief of staff of the Air Force, is on leave.
A US defense official told CNN the White House provided 5,000 tickets to the Pentagon.
This is not the first time military leaders have signaled their discomfort with potential politicization of the military in recent weeks. In early June, former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued an internal memo to all Pentagon personnel, service members and civilian employees calling on leaders to “reinforce the apolitical nature” of the US military, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
The memo was in response followed reports that the White House Military Office coordinated directly with the Navy’s Seventh Fleet to have the USS John S. McCain hidden from view during Trump’s visit to Japan. The late senator and Trump sparred often.
Several types of military aircraft are expected to take part in the event, including the new Marine One Presidential VH-92 helicopter, which will be making its debut, a defense official confirmed to CNN.
Here is the list of attendees as provided by a senior US defense official:
Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer
Adm. Bob Burke, Vice Chief of Naval Operations
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, Deputy Commandant of the US Marine Corps
Acting Air Force Secretary Matthew Donovan
Gen. Stephen Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force
Adm. Karl Schultz, US Coast Guard Commandant
Mr. James McPherson, performing the Duties of the Under Secretary of the Army
Lt. Gen. Joseph P. Martin, incoming Vice Chief of Staff of the Army
This story is breaking and will be updated.

Trump says an Iranian attack on anything American will be met with ‘obliteration’

  • Trump slams Iran on Twitter for issuing a “very ignorant and insulting statement” after the U.S. slapped fresh sanctions on Tehran.
  • Trump says any Iranian attack on Americans would be met with “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”
  • The latest confrontation comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
RTS: Trump annoyed White House
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order aimed at requiring hospitals to be more transparent about prices before charging patients for healthcare services, at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 24, 2019.
Erin Scott | Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump slammed Iran on Tuesday, saying any Iranian attack on Americans would be met with “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”

Trump’s comments on Twitter came a day after he announced fresh sanctions on the Islamic Republic in the wake of its downing of an unmanned U.S. drone last week.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded to the new sanctions by calling them  “outrageous and idiotic” and saying the White House  was suffering from a “mental illness.”

Trump called that response a “very ignorant and insulting statement.”

Donald J. Trump


Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words “nice” or “compassion,” they never have. Sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the USA is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone..

23.2K people are talking about this

“Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words “nice” or “compassion,” they never have,” Trump wrote. “Sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the USA is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone.”

In another tweet, Trump said that any Iranian attack on Americans would be met with “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”

Donald J. Trump


….The wonderful Iranian people are suffering, and for no reason at all. Their leadership spends all of its money on Terror, and little on anything else. The U.S. has not forgotten Iran’s use of IED’s & EFP’s (bombs), which killed 2000 Americans, and wounded many more…

Donald J. Trump


….Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!

26.3K people are talking about this

The latest confrontation comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018.

Last week, U.S. officials said an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down an American military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said the aircraft was over its territory. Hours later, Trump said Iran made a “very big mistake ” by shooting down the spy drone.

On Thursday, he approved military strikes on Iran before calling them off, saying the attack would have been disproportionate to Iran’s downing of an unmanned American surveillance drone.

“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die,” Trump wrote. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not […] proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world.”

The downing of the drone came a week after the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region. Four tankers were attacked in May. Iran denies involvement.

PA: Oil tanker Gulf of Oman
Fire and smoke billow from the Norwegian owned Front Altair tanker, which was said to have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman.
ISNA | AFP | Getty Images

“Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month without citing specific evidence as to why Tehran was responsible. “No economic sanctions entitle the Islamic Republic to attack innocent civilians, disrupt global oil markets and engage in nuclear blackmail.”

The Pentagon last week released declassified images showing the sustained damage from one of the oil tankers and maintained that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy was responsible.

“Iran is responsible for the attack based on video evidence and the resources and proficiency needed to quickly remove the unexploded limpet mine,” the Pentagon said in a June 17 statement.

Mike Pence won’t say if he views climate crisis as threat to US

SOTU Pence FULL_00152803
SOTU Pence FULL_00152803

Tapper spars with Pence on Iran, border, climate 23:58

Washington (CNN)Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday wouldn’t say if he views the global climate crisis as a threat to the United States.

Pence repeatedly dodged when asked multiple times on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether the human-induced crisis is a threat to the country, telling host Jake Tapper: “Well, what I will tell you is that we’ll always follow the science on that in this administration.”
There is near universal consensus in the scientific community that the global climate emergency is man made. President Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims about climate change.
“But what we won’t do, and the clean power plan was all about that, was hamstringing energy in this country, raising the cost of utility rates for working families across this country,” Pence said Sunday.
When pressed again on whether he believes the climate crisis is a threat, Pence said, “I think the answer to that is going to be based upon the science.”
“Well the science says yes,” Tapper said. “I’m asking you what you think.”
“Well, there’s many in the science that debate that,” Pence said.
Tapper responded, “The science community in your own administration — at (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), at the (Director of National Intelligence) — they all say it’s a threat. But you won’t, for some reason.”
Pence said, “What we’ve said is that we are not going to raise utility rates.”
The Trump administration rolled back last week an Obama-era plan that limited coal-fired power plant emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency said states can set their own carbon emissions standards for coal-fired power plants — a rule that the agency itself says could result in 1,400 more premature deaths by 2030 than the Obama-era plan it will replace.
The Obama Clean Power Plan was set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to the climate crisis, by up to 32% compared to 2005 levels by the same year.
“So you don’t think it’s a threat,” Tapper said.
“I think we’re making great progress reducing carbon emissions,” Pence said. “America has the cleanest air and water in the world. We’ll continue to use market forces—”
“That’s not true,” Tapper said. “We don’t have the cleanest air and water in the world. We don’t.”
The US ranks 10th in the world for air quality and 83rd for air pollution, according to the 2018 Environmental Performance Index. It ranks 29th for water and sanitation, according to the index, which is produced by Yale University and Columbia University.
The US is tied for first place with nine other countries for the quality of drinking water, according to the index.
“But we’re making progress on reducing carbon emissions,” Pence said, adding, “We’re doing it through technology, through natural gas, through continuing to support, as our administration has — “
Tapper responded, “You just rolled back all these clean–“
“Turn back to nuclear energy, clean energy,” Pence continued. “The answer though is not to raise the utility rates of millions of utility rate payers.”

What would a US-Iran conflict look like?

Iranian protesters burn a painted US flag at a rally in Tehran on 10 May 2019Image copyrightAFP
Image captionTensions have been escalating between the two countries

A US naval reconnaissance drone was downed by Iranian missiles. President Donald Trump says he ordered – and then aborted – a retaliatory attack, changing his mind 10 minutes before the planned strikes. The sequence of events provided a glimpse of how a conflict might start.

Just suppose the president had not changed his mind. What might have happened? The first US strikes would have been limited in scope, targeting Iranian missile sites or radars, either associated with or similar to the ones that shot down the US drone. They would have been accompanied by a clear diplomatic warning to Iran (as appears to have been delivered over-night on Thursday) that this was indeed a limited attack, solely in retaliation for the loss of the US aircraft.

Mr Trump also reportedly offered an olive branch; according to reports the message to Tehran – which was relayed through Oman – included a further request for talks.

Say the strikes had gone ahead. What would happen then? The next move would be Iran’s. According to one report, it responded last night that it was not interested in talks, and gave a warning of its own: “Any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences,” one un-named official told the Reuters news agency.

Image captionIranian TV published pictures of what it says was the wreckage of the US drone

So where might such a conflict go and what would it look like? There are many variables to consider, and it is easier to say what will not happen. The Trump administration may be an implacable foe of the Iranian regime but there is not going to be a full-scale ground invasion of Iran to topple the regime. This is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran is an altogether more complex challenge both militarily and politically. Some in the White House clearly want regime change. They are likely to be disappointed. So rule out a major land war.

Any follow-up Iranian attack on US ships or aircraft would almost certainly be met by an escalation from the Americans. Iranian naval installations, air bases and so on would be hit by aircraft and cruise missiles with the focus, in part, on the Revolutionary Guard Corps whose naval arm appears to have played a prominent role in recent events.

Of course the United States can deliver punishing strikes against Iran’s military infrastructure. But Iran has the means to strike back too. It can use a variety of measures from mines, swarming small boat attacks or submarines to disrupt operations in the confined waters of the Gulf. Oil tankers could be attacked forcing the Americans to take steps to protect them too.

Where the US clearly has an extraordinary advantage is in intelligence gathering and situational awareness. But as the downing of the very sophisticated and hugely expensive drone illustrates, there are significant US vulnerabilities too. All Iran may think it needs to do is to damage or sink a few US warships to make the price of this conflict one that Mr Trump will not want to pay.

Media captionIran ‘made a very big mistake’ – Trump

Any war would be characterised by this “asymmetric” aspect. This term suggests a war of the weak against the strong – two sides with very different goals and very different metrics for success. If a war does break out the US will seek to pummel Iran’s armed forces. It would probably go about it in its time-honoured fashion; initially taking down Iranian air defences and so on. But the Iranians simply need to do enough damage to turn US public opinion against the conflict – to make it appear open-ended and uncertain.

Iran, if under sufficient pressure, might also seek to spread the conflict more broadly, urging its proxies in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere to attack US targets. In extremis it might even try to prevail upon Hezbollah (in concert with its own forces in Syria) to launch rocket attacks on Israel. The goal would be to demonstrate to Washington that what Mr Trump might see as a short-punitive campaign actually risks setting the region on fire.

But why would either country allow themselves to drift into a war? After all, modern conflicts are not “won” in any conventional sense. The Americans should have learnt this lesson all too well from Afghanistan and Iraq. And Iran surely cannot think it can “beat” the United States in any meaningful sense? But the reality is that somewhere between punitive attacks on the one hand and a full-scale conflict on the other, both countries may believe that they can make strategic gains.

The US wants to contain Iran. Severely damaging its military capabilities – especially those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – would serve this purpose. A serious reversal for Tehran might ultimately impact domestic politics in the country, though a war could equally have the unwanted result of consolidating support for the current regime.

Iran may be pursuing its own high-stakes version of a “regime change” policy too. It may see the current US administration as aggressive, but equally as indecisive and lacking support from its key western allies. By drawing the Americans into a costly and open-ended conflict, the Iranian leadership may believe that they can absorb the pain while damaging President Trump’s chances in the next Presidential race. An Iranian reading of the US political scene may see the Democrats as more likely to return to some kind of nuclear deal and as more willing therefore to relax economic sanctions.

Image captionEconomic sanctions are hitting Hassan Rouhani’s regime hard

The problem for Tehran is that time is not on its side. The economic pressure of sanctions is hitting hard. Iran has relatively few cards to play beyond threatening chaos. Thus it may see escalation as a route out of this crisis. President Trump on the other hand, according to his own tweets, says he is “in no hurry”.

Let’s hope all this discussion is academic. President Trump appeared ready to strike back at Iran after the downing of the drone and then had second thoughts. Many will hope that it is these second thoughts that prevail in the president’s mind over the coming days.

A war with Iran would indeed be costly and unpredictable. It would neither resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme nor of Iran’s growing prominence in the region. That was the indirect outcome of Washington’s last major war in the Middle East – the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Conflicts, it should be remembered, have unintended consequences.

With Bolton, Pompeo and Trump in the Picture, All Bets Are Off on Iran

If you’re worried about the U.S. initiating a shooting war with Iran, you should be, though not really, but definitely maybe, or not. As with everything else involving Donald Trump and the intentions of his administration, attempting to figure out exactly what they are up to is a lot like trying to stare into the bottom of a mud puddle.

Last week’s attacks on two Japanese-owned oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were a lit match beside a large barrel of kerosene. The Trump administration had already pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal despite the fact that Iran was in compliance with its strictures. The tensions rose further when it was announced that a U.S. carrier strike group would be steaming into the Gulf. The administration then announced troop buildups in the region and ordered most non-essential U.S. personnel out of Iraq, a move that is generally viewed as a precursor to war.

When the tankers were attacked, the Trump administration leaped to blame Iran, using murky video footage as proof along with other “intelligence” that officials refused to share. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran trying to mediate between Iran and the U.S. amid deteriorating relations when the attacks took place. It makes little sense for Iran to attack Japanese vessels while that nation’s prime minister is in the country.

People directly involved with the attacked tankers have cast deep doubt on the Trump administration’s “evidence” of Iranian complicity in the attack. The U.S. has claimed the ships were attacked with torpedoes or limpet mines, but the captain of one of the ships claims his crew saw his ship attacked by “flying objects.” Yutaka Katada, president of the company that owns one of the tankers, said, “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”

The incredulity in Japan goes well beyond th

Trump prepares to bypass Congress to take on Iran

But the administration is looking to pressure the clerical regime, not fight it, a senior official said.


The Trump administration and its domestic political allies are laying the groundwork for a possible confrontation with Iran without the explicit consent of Congress — a public relations campaign that was already well under way before top officials accused the Islamic Republic of attacking a pair of oil tankers last week in the Gulf of Oman.

Over the past few months, senior Trump aides have made the case in public and private that the administration already has the legal authority to take military action against Iran, citing a law nearly two decades old that was originally intended to authorize the war in Afghanistan.

In the latest sign of escalating tensions, National Security Adviser John Bolton warned Iran in an interview conducted last week and published Monday, “They would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president’s resolve on this.” Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday evening that the U.S. was deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the region for “defensive purposes.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to Tampa, home of Central Command, on Monday evening to huddle with military officials to discuss “regional security concerns and ongoing operations,” according to a State Department spokeswoman.

The developments came as Iran announced it was on course to violate a core element of its nuclear deal with major world powers, exceeding the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the agreement in 10 days unless European nations intervened to blunt the economic pain of American sanctions. And they came as U.S. officials promoted video footage and images showing what they say were Iranian forces planting explosive devices on commercial oil tankers.

hawkish advisers have highlighted Iran’s alleged bad behavior, administration officials privately stressed that direct military action remained highly unlikely absent an Iranian attack on an American ship or an American citizen. The president, who campaigned against getting the U.S. bogged down in unnecessary foreign wars, is considered the primary internal obstacle to a counterattack, officials said, noting that Trump continues to press for an improved nuclear deal.

Trump on Monday de-emphasized the international significance of the recent tanker explosions in an interview with Time magazine — downplaying the Gulf of Oman’s value to U.S. oil supplies and describing alleged Iranian acts of aggression as “very minor.”

“If you look at the rhetoric now compared to the days when they were signing [the 2015 nuclear deal], where it was always ‘death to America, death to America, we will destroy America, we will kill America,’ I’m not hearing that too much anymore,” Trump told Time. “And I don’t expect to.”

Still, to the alarm of Democrats and some Republicans, Pompeo has suggested that if the administration does take military action, it might rely on the 2001 congressional bill that greenlighted America’s military response to the 9/11 attacks to strike Iran. Asked Sunday by CBS host Margaret Brennan whether the administration believed it had the authority to initiate military action, Pompeo would say only, “Every option we look at will be fully lawful.”

And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a close ally of the administration, urged the president to attack Iran outright — adding that he didn’t need permission from Congress. “Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike,” Cotton told Brennan. “The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests,” he said.

But in a sign of some unease among other Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told POLITICO that she expected to discuss the legitimacy of that justification — and of military retaliation itself — with her Senate colleagues this week.

Trump has sent conflicting messages about his own intentions — one day signaling his desire to negotiate with the clerical regime in Tehran, the next dismissing Iran as unready for serious talks. “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” Trump tweeted last Thursday, “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”

In some of Pompeo’s recent pronouncements, many on the left, and a few on the right, see the Trump team paving a path to war.

In April, the State Department named the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, a legal designation that some fear could be used to link the elite paramilitary force with al Qaeda. Later, Pompeo also said Iran had “instigated” a May 31 suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban claimed credit for the incident.

Pressed by CBS’s Brennan on Sunday, Pompeo reiterated the claim. “[W]e have confidence that Iran instigated this attack,” he said. “I can’t share any more of the intelligence. But I wouldn’t have said it if the intelligence community hadn’t become convinced that this was the case.”

The secretary of state’s efforts to link Iran and al Qaeda and to terrorism more broadly have become a flashpoint in multiple congressional hearings this spring — and they have taken on renewed significance given the growing possibility of a military confrontation between the two countries.

“It’s not surprising that you have a kind of revisitation of the AUMF because here you have what looks like the potential for a kind of real escalation,” said Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East negotiator, referring to the 2001 bill that authorized military action against any national or individual involved in the 9/11 attacks.

“In the 2001 AUMF, there’s actually no real relationship to this,” Ross added. “It certainly didn’t name Iran and there comes a point where many in Congress want to have oversight over getting into a shooting war with Iran.”

As the president’s senior national security advisers huddled on Monday to consider how to respond to Iran, it was unclear how close the U.S. was inching to military action. Schanzer, for one, cast skepticism on an unattributed report in the Jerusalem Post on Monday that the U.S. had drawn up plans for a limited bombing campaign against an Iranian nuclear facility.

A senior administration official said Monday that the goal of the administration’s maximum pressure policy remains forcing the regime back to the table to negotiate a new and improved nuclear deal.

Iran has thus far been careful to avoid attacks on American vessels — an internal administration red line that would force a military response, this official said. Administration allies including FDD’s chief executive, Mark Dubowitz, said that while he expects U.S. sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to increase, it is less clear whether military action will result absent a direct attack against an American ship or an American citizen.

The president himself is caught between competing impulses: his disdain for the 2015 deal the Obama administration struck with Iran and his desire to strike a contrast, on the one hand, and his reluctance to get into another war in the Middle East on the other. He has long been more skittish than his hawkish advisers about ratcheting up tensions, but he sent a blunt warning to Iran’s leaders last month that “If they do anything it would be a very bad mistake.”

Last week, two lawmakers — Trump ally Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Democrat Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) — said that Pompeo had invoked the 2001 AUMF in a closed-door briefing with lawmakers about Iran, suggesting the administration could use it as a legal justification for war.

“We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran,” Slotkin said. “Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words.”

Exiting an earlier closed-door briefing on May 21 by acting defense secretary Shanahan, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) told reporters, “What I heard in there makes it clear that this administration feels that they do not have to come back and talk to Congress in regards to any action they do in Iran.”

The Trump administration’s case against Iran has rested in part on the argument that it has supported al Qaeda. Announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2017, for example, Trump said that the country “supports terrorist proxies and militias,” including al Qaeda.

“Iran’s connection to al Qaeda is very real,” Pompeo told lawmakers in April. “They have hosted al Qaeda, they have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country. There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republican of Iran and al Qaeda. Period. Full stop.”

When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pushed Pompeo in that hearing to pledge that the administration would not rely on the 18-year old war authorization to attack Iran, the secretary demurred, saying that he would “prefer to leave that to the lawyers.”

“I can tell you explicitly you have not been given power or authority by Congress to have a war with Iran and in any kind of semblance of a sane world you would have to come back and ask us before you go into Iran,” Paul retorted.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF back in 2001, included an amendment repealing the provision in the defense appropriations bill currently being debated on the House floor. Her legislation would repeal the AUMF eight months after the appropriations bill becomes law, providing time, she has argued, for Congress to properly debate and vote on a replacement bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month that the administration could not rely on the 2001 law to take military action in Iran, and more than 100 House Democrats followed up on her remarks by penning a letter to the president making a similar case.

“They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,” Pelosi said at a press conference in May.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have made similar comments. “If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), told The Intercept on Friday, calling it “Constitutional Law 101.”

In his campaign’s maiden foreign policy speech, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg argued for repealing and replacing the 2001 law in order to narrow its scope — an idea that has gained traction among some Democrats.

Some Republicans, however, say the administration could respond without getting a stamp of approval from Congress, drawing comparisons to the Reagan administration’s decision in 1987 to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iranian attacks in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Because U.S. law prohibits the use of Navy ships to escort foreign vessels, the Kuwaiti ships flew American naval flags.

“Reagan ended up sinking about half the Iranian Navy,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. “Admittedly, it was a small navy, but they noticed.”