Earlier this week, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton issued a stern warning to Iran in response to intelligence reports of intentions to harm American assets in the region. His message read:
“In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a [B-52] bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces.”
The potential for a military confrontation with Tehran has probably never been higher since the 1979 Islamic revolution in that country and the taking of hostages at the American embassy.
U.S. officials have not specified the nature of the threat from Iran in this case — they were not authorized to divulge sensitive information that could aid the regime in refining its plot or holding off.
Still, there was some indication of where Iran or its proxies might be planning to strike:
“There has definitely been an uptick in threat reporting directed at the U.S. embassy in Iraq,” an unnamed American official told Politico on Monday. “It’s more than we’ve seen in a long time, and it suggests the de facto moratorium on attacks on U.S. facilities by Iranian sponsored groups is fraying.” The U.S. currently has about 5,200 troops in the country.
The reason for the change would seem to be Iran’s desire to retaliate for a new round of economic sanctions initiated by the U.S. last month, and by the White House decision to designate the Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
Lending credence to the suggestion that U.S. assets in Iraq are under threat, on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a meeting with German leader Angela Merkel to make an unannounced stop in Baghdad to confer with intelligence and defense chiefs, among other officials.
Pompeo himself said as much. “Iran is escalating their activity,” Pompeo told reporters. “I wanted to speak with the leadership there, to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq is a sovereign, independent nation.”
Of course, not everyone was convinced that the threat is real.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank, contended that it was merely a ploy to bolster the sanctions program.
“I think this is manufactured by Bolton to try to justify the administration’s very harsh policy toward Iran, despite the fact that Iran has been complying with the nuclear deal,” she said
But the argument that this is just crisis-mongering on the part of Bolton was unconvincing. Pompeo doesn’t seem to think so. Nor does Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees military operations in the Middle East. McKenzie put in a request to ramp up force levels in the region after he saw the reports of Iranian provocations.
Given Iran’s record of ceaseless death threats against Israel and the U.S., and the actual attacks carried out by Iranian proxies (including Hezbollah’s 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. peace keepers, and the U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans), one hardly has to “manufacture” a crisis with Tehran.
Rather, it is a question of where to draw the line against Iranian bullying and belligerence.
In recent years, forbearance has been the policy. When, in January 2016, two U.S. patrol craft were seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) after inadvertently entering Iranian territorial waters, the response of the Obama administration was appallingly weak.
Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the quick release of 10 sailors, after 15 hours detention, as a triumph of enlightened foreign policy.
Kerry acknowledged that the videos released by Iran showing American servicemen on their knees with their hands clasped behind their heads and their commander saying “we apologize for our mistake” made him angry and he told the Iranians so. But, he said, “we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hinted that it might well have played out differently had he been in the White House: “Those young people were on their hands and knees in a begging position with their hands up and thugs behind them with guns, and then we talk like it’s OK. It’s not OK. It’s lack of respect.”
Indeed, the handling of the 2016 incident was just the type of thing to embolden Iran to do more of the same in the future. A nation that will accept such humiliations will accept almost anything. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the thugs in Tehran will go as far as they think they can get away with.
What particular action the U.S. should take in this situation depends on information available only to the officers in the region and the government in Washington. We are confident they will act prudently.
But sending the naval task force to the region was a necessary message to the fellows at the IRGC that appeasement no longer rules the waves, and that attacks on America or its allies will not be worth their while. There is no other way to deal with them.