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The Insanity of the Iran Obsession

Trump's ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. Credit: photocosmos1/Shutterstock

Even at a time when the U.S. is facing a major health crisis here at home, you can always count on the Iran hawks in the Trump administration to keep agitating for escalation and war with Iran:

President Trump was getting ready to declare the coronavirus a “national emergency,” but inside the White House last Thursday, a tense debate erupted among the president and his top advisers on a far different subject: whether the United States should escalate military action against Iran, a longtime American rival that has been devastated by the epidemic.

The division in the administration is between the hard-liners in the administration that want to attack the Iranian military directly and the U.S. military that doesn’t want to jeopardize the relationship with Iraq any further. According to the report, the Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and the acting Director of National Intelligence all urged a larger attack earlier this month. It was only the Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that argued against this. They prevailed in the debate because they said that they did not have evidence that the latest rocket attack on was directed by Iran:

But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies did not have clear evidence that the attacks, launched by the Shiite militia group Khataib Hezbollah, had been ordered by Iran, they argued, and warned that a large-scale response could draw the United States into a wider war with Iran and rupture already strained relations with Iraq.

The military’s position prevailed, at least for the time being.

While the administration has so far proved to be inept in handling a genuinely pressing crisis here at home, some top officials keep trying to embroil the U.S. in yet another foreign conflict at a time when we absolutely cannot afford it. It is remarkable that there is no one in any part of the administration arguing for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq at this time. A continued military presence in Iraq is more irrelevant to U.S. security than ever, but the administration continues to operate as if nothing has changed.

The split among top administration officials is a familiar one. On one side, there are the Iran-obsessed civilians at State and the White House that can’t wait to use force and expose U.S. troops to greater dangers, and on the other there is the military leadership that has no interest in their plans:

That divide was on display during several top-level meetings on March 12, hours before Mr. Trump authorized the strikes. Before the meeting Mr. Trump convened with his top advisers, a lower-level meeting descended into acrimony when Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s top Iran adviser, erupted at Pentagon officials who professed not to have seen the military options being prepared for Mr. Trump, according to senior administration officials with knowledge of the meeting.

As expected, Trump’s decision to make Grenell the acting DNI has put another vocal Iran hawk in a key position at a dangerous time:

Later that day, the debate that played out in front of the president involved Mr. Pompeo and others arguing that limited airstrikes were more likely to perpetuate a cycle of violence than to break it. The secretary of state, backed by the new acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, argued that a more direct strike on Iran — such as hitting its naval vessels — could take the country by surprise and push its leaders to the negotiating table.

Of course, the illegal assassination of Soleimani was also supposed to take Iranian leaders by “surprise” and put a stop to the rocket attacks, but the rocket attacks have continued (whether directed by Iran or not) and Iran responded to the assassination with its own direct attack on U.S. forces in January. If the U.S. had done what Pompeo and Grenell wanted, Iran’s government would have almost certainly felt compelled to respond in kind with another direct attack on U.S. forces. In addition to dealing with a devastating pandemic, we would have found ourselves on the brink of war for the third time in less than a year, and all of this has happened as a result of the administration’s Iran obsession. Fortunately the hard-liners lost the debate this time, but it is insane that the administration is still having internal debates over attacking Iran when our country has much bigger and more immediate problems that require the full attention of our political leaders.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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