The conventions of mainstream journalism make it difficult to challenge America’s self-conception as a peace-loving nation. But the unlovely truth is this: Throughout its history, America has attacked countries that did not threaten it. To carry out such wars, American leaders have contrived pretexts to justify American aggression. That’s what Donald Trump’s administration—and especially its national security adviser, John Bolton—is doing now with Iran.
The historical examples abound. William McKinley’s administration sought a pretext for war in 1898, when—driven by the desire to evict Spain from its colonies in the Caribbean—it ignored evidence that an internal explosion, not a Spanish attack, had blown up the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson exaggerated a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin to win congressional approval to escalate the Vietnam War. In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s administration sent warplanes toward Libya’s coast to provoke the missile fire that would justify an American bombing campaign. In 1997, according to the memoir of General Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a top official in Bill Clinton’s administration suggested that the general lure Saddam Hussein into shooting down a U-2 spy plane over Iraq so the U.S. would have the “precipitous event” it needed “to go in and take out Saddam.” (Shelton refused.) In their book, Hubris, David Corn and Michael Isikoff recount a 2002 CIA plan to help Iraqi exiles take over an Iraqi air base and thus, in the words of one of the plan’s authors, “create an incident in which Saddam lashes out” so “you’d have a premise for war.”
Bolton is doing something similar today. For more than a decade, he’s consistently promoted war with Iran. All that has changed are the pretexts he’s offering to justify one.
In January 2007, President George W. Bush accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of “providing material support for attacks on American troops” in Iraq and launched a series of raids in which American soldiers detained Iranian officials there. U.S. and British intelligence analysts cast doubt on the claims of top Bush officials that Iran was a major driver of the Iraqi insurgency. Nonetheless, in internal administration discussions that summer, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly urged air strikes against alleged insurgent training camps in Iran. And Bolton, who had left the Bush administration the previous year, publicly endorsed the idea. He argued on Fox News that the U.S. “is fully entitled to take defensive measures, which could include going after the Revolutionary Guards inside Iran.”
But Bolton was just getting started. In 2008, he offered another rationale for striking Iran: that in addition to supporting anti-American forces in Iraq, it was “doing much the same by aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Over the next few years, as American soldiers left Iraq, Bolton’s initial rationale faded. But his desire for war did not. From 2012 to 2015 he repeatedly called for bombing Iran to stop its nuclear program.
Since becoming Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton has continued this pattern. Along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he’s offered justification after justification for attacking Iran. When one hasn’t worked, he’s found another.
Last September, a militia linked to Iran allegedly launched three mortars into an open lot near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, hurting no one. According to The New York Times, then–Defense Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed the attack as “insignificant.” But Bolton demanded that the military draw up plans for retaliation. “People were shocked,” one former administration official told The Wall Street Journal. “It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
Mattis averted an American strike. But he couldn’t stop Bolton from giving a speech that same month that all but advertised his desire for war. Addressing Iran’s leaders, Bolton announced, “If you cross us, our allies or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay … We are watching and we will come after you.”
In November, according to The New Yorker, Bolton found another pretext for military action. Iran was preparing to test-fire a medium-range ballistic missile, and Bolton suggested shooting it down. Again, he was overruled.
Then, in January, Iran launched a satellite into space. “This is in defiance of UNSCR 2231,” Pompeo tweeted. “We won’t stand by while the regime threatens international security.” The New York Times noted that “the Pentagon and intelligence agencies disagreed with Mr. Pompeo’s interpretation of the threat posed by the satellite launches,” which Iran had been conducting since 2005. Yet again, security officials reined in Pompeo and Bolton. But within the military, alarm was spreading. “Senior Pentagon officials are voicing deepening fears,” another Times piece reported that month, “that President Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John R. Bolton, could precipitate a conflict with Iran.”
The fears were well placed. In April, Pompeo told Congress, “There is no doubt there is a connection” between al-Qaeda and Iran—which raised the prospect that the Trump administration would not request new congressional authorization for war with Tehran. It would simply invoke the authorization against al-Qaeda that Congress passed three days after 9/11.
That same month, Bolton and Pompeo pushed through a decision to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, overriding the objection of General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military officials, who warned, according to the Times, that the move “could incite retaliation by Tehran against American troops and intelligence officers.”
Still, Bolton and his fellow hawks turned up the pressure even further. In April, the Trump administration announced that the U.S.—having already reimposed sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal—was eliminating the waivers that permitted China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey to buy Iranian oil. The goal, in Pompeo’s words, was to drive Tehran’s oil exports—which provide roughly 40 percent of its government revenue—to “zero.” In May, the administration added sanctions on Iranian steel, aluminum, iron, and copper, which comprise 10 percent of the country’s exports.
By May, events were bearing out the Pentagon’s fears. “In private meetings,” the Times noted, “military officials have warned the White House that its maximum-pressure campaign against Iran is motivating … threats to United States troops and American interests in the Middle East.” The former Bush-administration official Kori Schake observed that “every single European government believes that the increased threat we’re seeing from Iran now is a reaction to the United States leaving the Iran nuclear agreement and trying to force Iranian capitulation on other issues.”
This was the plan: Provoke Iran until it provides a pretext for America to strike. (What comes after such a strike is something Bolton has not publicly discussed as national security adviser. In his previous writing, he has generally breezed past the subject while vaguely suggesting that an attack might help foment regime change.)
In May, Bolton announced that the U.S. was sending an aircraft-carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the Middle East and warned that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” Pompeo added that the U.S. would hold the “Iranian leadership directly accountable” for any attack by a “third-party proxy, whether that’s a Shia militia group or the Houthis or Hezbollah.” The conditions Bolton and Pompeo laid out were broad and vague enough that accusing Iran of violating them would be easy. What constitutes an “interest” of American allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is far from clear. And many experts don’t believe that Tehran—which Pompeo said would be held responsible for the misdeeds of the Houthi rebels in Yemen—has much operational control over them. In his eagerness to find evidence of Iranian aggression, Pompeo in June blamed Tehran for a suicide attack in Kabul for which the Taliban had claimed responsibility. The Washington Post reported that Pompeo’s claim “surprised regional experts and a former U.S. diplomat, who said it would be unusual for Iran to launch an attack inside the Afghan capital.”
Now Bolton and Pompeo are accusing Iran of attacking ships carrying oil out of the Persian Gulf. Even American allies have viewed these claims skeptically, and for good reason: In the Bush administration, Bolton was notorious for being, in the words of one former colleague, “cavalier not just with intelligence, but with facts,” and “impervious to information that goes against his preconceived ideological views.”
Moreover, if Iran really is attacking oil tankers, the Trump administration’s own actions are a big part of the reason. As the Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari noted in May, “The Iranians’ motto is, if you’re going to prohibit exporting our oil … which is an economic catastrophe for Iran, then we will interfere with the oil exports of other people.” In the words of Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Iran was getting repeatedly punched in the face by the Trump administration, and they’ve been warning for months there will be consequences.”
One of those consequences, Iran announced this week, will be its violation of the limitations on uranium enrichment codified in the 2015 nuclear deal. A spokesman for Bolton called the move “nuclear blackmail” that “must be met with increased international pressure.” The hypocrisy is astounding. After massively expanding sanctions—and thus denying Iran the key benefits it was promised under the nuclear deal—the Trump administration is now threatening Iran for potentially violating an international agreement that the United States has been brazenly violating for more than a year.
Trump himself has downplayed the tanker attacks as “very minor.” But whether he can ease the tensions that his aides have systematically inflamed is unclear. Meanwhile, Bolton and Pompeo are nearing their endgame. Since they were appointed to their positions last year, they have been seeking justifications for war with Iran. Now that they have succeeded in provoking Tehran into violating the nuclear deal and, perhaps, interfering with commercial shipping, they’re pretending they had nothing to do with any of this. They’re mere bystanders to Iranian belligerence, to which Americans may reluctantly feel compelled to respond.
For more than a century, this false innocence has been a feature of every unprovoked American war. And it is this false innocence that Americans must relentlessly challenge if they wish to avoid war with Iran now.