In Yemen, Iranian support for the Houthi rebels motivates the controversial Saudi-led war effort—while also providing an impetus for the Trump administration to bypass Congress to continue selling Riyadh weapons. Even tiny Bahrain is a front line for proxy struggle, as Iran backs insurgents against the U.S.-allied monarchy. Iran has also vowed at times to close the Strait of Hormuz, and threats to the oil interests of America’s Gulf allies continue. In addition to the recent attacks against Emirati oil tankers, Bolton has blamed Iran for an unsuccessful attack on the Saudi port of Yanbu, its most important oil site on the Red Sea.
Even these sources of U.S.-Iran tensions, however, pale in comparison with the Iraq War, which saw the U.S. military suffer hundreds of casualties in battles with Iran-backed militias. American soldiers were killed and maimed en masse by an especially deadly type of Iranian-made roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which were designed to pierce U.S. armored vehicles.
Seth Moulton, a Democratic presidential candidate and a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, served four tours as a Marine officer in the war and still reserves enmity for the Iranian proxies he fought then. But Moulton, who like other members of Congress received a classified briefing on the recent intelligence reports, told me the Trump administration has overhyped them—“playing up an old threat,” as he put it—in hopes of making the situation seem more urgent. “We cannot underestimate the Iranian threat. It’s real. It’s significant. They want to kill Americans, there’s no question about that,” he said. “The question is, how do we respond most effectively? And exaggerating the threat or escalating tensions is not a wise approach.”
While critics of Trump’s Iran policy often raise the specter of the Iraq War, which saw the George W. Bush administration manipulate intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to justify an invasion, Moulton said this is the wrong analogy. Trump has been clear that he doesn’t want another costly military engagement in the Middle East. The greater risk, Moulton said, is stumbling into war via an ill-planned escalation, as was the case in Vietnam, where a naval confrontation in the Gulf of Tonkin sucked the United States deeper into the conflict. Moulton told me he worries about an “incident where there’s an altercation and the administration says, ‘There’s no going back now.’”
On their own, recent U.S. moves to divert warships and relocate a Patriot missile battery to the region, and reported plans to send a relatively small number of additional troops as force protection, have not been provocative, analysts say. It was these moves, coupled with the aggressive rhetoric and ultimatums from Bolton and others, that sparked concerns. Trump has moved to ease worries of late, insisting, as administration officials have all along in background briefings, that he doesn’t want a war or even regime change. Yet his critics fret that a military escalation is possible—not an invasion, perhaps, but a limited U.S. strike—especially if an attack by Iran or one of its proxies allows hawkish U.S. officials to frame the move as self-defense. Asked on Wednesday whether he’s considering military action against Iran, Trump replied, “There is always a chance.”