The Knowns and Unknowns of What’s Happening With Iran

Conflicting signals from both sides could be read as a march to war or business as usual.

The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transits the Suez Canal in Egypt. The aircraft carrier and its strike group are deploying to the Persian Gulf on orders from the White House to respond to an unspecified threat from Iran. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Darion Chanelle Triplett / U.S. Navy / AP)

Updated at 10:47 a.m. ET on May 21, 2019.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

That was Donald Rumsfeld speaking from the Pentagon podium in 2002 about assessing the threat from Iraq. The past week of provocations and counter-provocations between the United States and Iran—involving U.S. aircraft-carrier and bomber deployments, mysterious explosions on oil tankers, drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities from the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen, and a sudden withdrawal of some U.S. personnel from the embassy in Baghdad—has evoked fearful comparisons to that era and the military conflict it presaged. While the comparison might not be completely apt, there’s a key similarity; now as then, the American public finds itself in a fog of something short of war, with few ways to assess what could be coming.

Still unknown is what precise intelligence precipitated last week’s announcement from National Security Adviser John Bolton that the U.S. is sending a carrier strike group to the region in the face of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” Still unknown is who exactly was behind the tanker explosions, for which Iran has denied responsibility but which U.S. officials suspect to be their work. Still unknown is what exactly prompted the embassy evacuation order, and how much Iran-backed militias in Iraq are posing more of a threat to American forces following Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran.

What it all adds up to, depending on whom you ask, is the gathering storm of Iraq 2.0, or standard posturing and flexing designed precisely to contain tensions, not escalate them. With such sparse information, you can look at the same public developments and draw wildly opposite conclusions about what’s about to happen in the Middle East. In fact, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations during the Trump administration in particular, one likelihood is that the current tensions are routine and will subside, as many previous rounds have.

The problem is that the flare-ups are occurring in the context of foggy and incomplete information, as U.S. officials cite intelligence reports of threats from Iran without saying what those threats are. The Iranians are looking at a lot of the same information—and if they guess wrong about what it means, the conflict no one says they want risks drawing closer with any overreaction or hastily planned escalation.

On one hand, there are those who hear, in the steady drip of vague characterizations of threat intelligence coupled with strident talk from U.S. officials, worrying echoes of the events preceding the Iraq War. Greg Thielmann, for instance, retired from a 25-year U.S. government career in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and then worked to raise awareness that senior U.S. officials were distorting intelligence on the country. Thielmann had been an official in the State Department’s intelligence arm, and felt that intelligence was being manipulated to justify a war of choice in the Middle East. But Thielmann, now a board member of the Arms Control Association, told us he sees signs of this not-too-distant past in the rising tensions with Iran today.* “It’s not very comforting to be following this and noticing the similarities,” he said. One of those similarities, he added, is the “selective” presentation of intelligence.

“There are significant differences [with Iraq],” he said. But he feels that the way U.S. officials have portrayed the purported new Iranian threat is insufficient. “We haven’t seen any details at all on that. Where is the public release of information that is very key to issues of war and peace? Have they even testified to Congress? What is it that justified these very extreme measures?”

Thielmann, who worked under Bolton for a time in the run-up to the Iraq War, worried, as many have, that Trump’s hawkish adviser might be pushing the president toward a military conflict. But it’s an open question how much influence Bolton really has on this issue, given the president’s own oft-stated desire to withdraw from the Middle East. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, Trump responded with frustration when he felt that Bolton had pushed him too hard in a different standoff, with President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Asked about Bolton publicly this week, Trump said he likes him and receives good advice from him, but joked: “I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn’t it? … Ultimately, I make the decision.”

Tuesday, however, he did openly threaten to send troops to the region—even as he denied a New York Times report, whose headline cited “echoes of [the] Iraq War,” that the administration had reviewed a contingency plan drawn up by the U.S. military, at Bolton’s directive, to send up to 120,000 troops there. (The U.S. military plans for many contingencies.) “I think it’s fake news, okay?” Trump told reporters. “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

On the other hand, the threats that unnamed officials have described to various media outlets include missile movements, threats to ships in the Persian Gulf, and preparations among Iranian proxies to target the U.S. and its allies. Earlier this week, Iran’s regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said three of their tankers were sabotaged without naming a suspect, and a Norwegian company cited damage to one of its own tankers in the region. U.S. officials reportedly suspect Iran but have made no public accusations as of yet. These events could be taken as indications that the threats were real and the concern was warranted. At the same time, such moves would be consistent with years’ worth of Iranian activity in the region—which are precisely what U.S. officials say is part of the reason for the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign.

America’s recent moves, too, are not far out of line with past practice. Aircraft-carrier movements in the Gulf are routine, and the current deployment merely speeds up the timeline of a mission that had already been under way for a month. One Patriot anti-missile battery deployed to the region last week replaces four that were withdrawn months ago. All this is occurring as the United States is in the midst of a broader planned drawdown from the region.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s being made out to be,” Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who worked on Iran at the Pentagon during Barack Obama’s administration, told us. “But there’s a lot of reason to be concerned.”

He added: “If you pull back and look objectively at the assets the United States is putting into the region—one carrier that was kind of supposed to be going there anyway, one Patriot missile battery after we moved four out, four bombers—the U.S. is not going to war with Iran with that. But it’s all the hype around it, and the Bolton statement is really what set this off.”

North Korea circa 2017 may be a better analogy for understanding current developments than Iraq circa 2003. That summer and fall, North Korea was testing missiles and nuclear weapons, Trump was threatening fire and fury, and news reports were citing military plans and internal struggles within the Trump administration over which path to pursue. There was even an episode in which Trump said he was “sending an armada” to the Sea of Japan to deter the North Koreans, at a moment when the aircraft carrier under discussion was in fact thousands of miles away and heading in the opposite direction. In the end, Trump appeared to be using the brinkmanship as leverage to strike a deal—one that has so far eluded him. And regardless, tensions ramped down considerably and suddenly.

Trump may lack a strong worldview, but one consistent theme for him ever since his campaign has been his desire to withdraw from conflicts in the Middle East. Many of his supporters shared this aim, and it would be difficult for him to justify starting a new one. American officials have in recent days reiterated that they do not seek a military conflict, though notably are willing to engage in one if necessary. The assumption that such brinkmanship can drive Iran to the table in the same way may be flawed, given that the Iranians feel burned by Trump’s withdrawal from the last deal they struck with the Americans. And Iran, lacking its own leverage, may seek to accumulate leverage by raising tensions.

Conflicting public signals, as in the North Korea case, are once again making it difficult to discern the administration’s intentions. On Tuesday, for example, a deputy commander of anti–Islamic State coalition forces in the region, the British Major General Chris Ghika, told reporters at the Pentagon from video-link in Baghdad that “there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” though he then said the coalition was monitoring a range of threats from a variety of militias that go up or down depending on a range of factors. Asked whether he was worried that U.S. comments were putting coalition troops in danger, he responded: “Am I concerned about the danger? No, not really.”

Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, later challenged these comments, saying they ran “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”

Another instructive analogy could be Venezuela. There, unlike with Iran, the administration has laid out an explicit policy of regime change, but is seeking it almost entirely through sanctions and verbal pressure. Though officials frequently invoke the military option, the military is so far being used in a humanitarian and support role, and there are no indications of imminent hostilities. There, the administration is experimenting with driving a regime out without firing a shot. For the Iranian case, various administration officials have hinted that they’d prefer a different government in Tehran, but have carefully stopped short of articulating a regime-change policy and say publicly that they seek only behavior change.

“I think we have to be careful not to throw all sound analysis out the window just because events start to speed up,” says Michael Singh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was a Middle East director in George W. Bush’s White House.

He notes that Iran is mostly taking actions one would expect, given the administration’s efforts to throttle its oil exports—including possible attacks on regional energy infrastructure. He also notes that under the Trump administration, Iran has not undertaken the same kind of naval harassment of American ships that it has in the past, a possible indicator that the administration is deterring it from some activities. But he adds that the confrontation still seems to be moving into a more dangerous phase, with no diplomacy to speak of serving as a release valve for the tensions.

The fact that neither side is looking for a conflict, he says, doesn’t mean a conflict won’t happen. But a drawdown of tensions remains possible too.

* A previous version of this article misstated the reason Thielmann left his U.S. government post and clarifies his current role at the Arms Control Association.