When Barbara Leaf was a senior U.S. diplomat in Basra, in southern Iraq, Iranian-supplied bombs often rained down on her compound and harassed her convoys. “I was on the receiving end of mortars, EFPs, IEDs,” she told me, using acronyms for the deadly weapons that were familiar to any American serving in the country.
Leaf was in Basra in 2010 and 2011, when American troops regularly battled Iran-backed militias. She oversaw the establishment of the U.S. consulate in the city—which Donald Trump’s administration evacuated this fall, citing threats from the same Iran-backed militias, before partially evacuating the consulate in Erbil and the embassy in Baghdad last month.
Leaf sees those evacuations as an overreaction. She recently retired after three years as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, another post that involved managing the sort of Iranian threats the Trump administration is now spotlighting. Among other accusations, it blames Iran for May attacks against four UAE oil tankers; National Security Adviser John Bolton has said he will present evidence of this to the United Nations soon. “I am not privy to the intelligence now, but I was privy to it a year ago, and this is the kind of stuff you see periodically,” Leaf said.
Anyone who has spent the past month on edge about a potential military escalation between the United States and Iran might easily overlook a key fact: Nuclear weapons have not been the issue. U.S. officials such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have framed the standoff instead around other types of Iranian activity—threats from Iran’s proxies against U.S. troops and personnel, purported attacks against shipping interests, and the transport of short-range ballistic missiles around the Persian Gulf.
Yet these are the kinds of things Iran has been doing for a long time, and to put the current threats into context, I spoke with people who have real-world experience in dealing with them. They come from different professional backgrounds and political persuasions but share the sense that a retaliatory U.S. military strike is possible—and depends in part on whether Iran and its proxies carry out acts that have long been their modus operandi.
In effect, the Trump administration has moved the red line for military escalation from the issue of nuclear weapons to a wide range of more commonplace Iranian activities. Its public messaging has left Tehran with a surprisingly broad ultimatum. Bolton warned Iran last month that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force” as he announced that U.S. warships would be sent to the region. “What are ‘U.S. interests’? Who are our ‘allies’ for the purpose of this warning? What are their ‘interests’? ” asked Leaf, who is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So it was an extraordinarily flabby threat which was bound to be tested. [The Iranians] could try to push their luck.”
This is where the fog of war has settled—on how to read and respond to long-running threats from Iran that fall outside the realm of nuclear activity. The Trump administration has cited U.S. intelligence reports to say that such threats are increasing; debate has ensued on what the intelligence really means. Navigating this murky realm of classified data and asymmetrical threats can’t be done in a vacuum and requires understanding the context of long and complicated regional rivalries.
Today, in Iraq, the same Iran-backed militias that once fought U.S. troops have seen a resurgence thanks to the war with the Islamic State. They wield growing political power and far outnumber the American soldiers based in the country. The two sides were wary allies against ISIS, but with ISIS diminished and U.S.-Iran tensions rising, they are locked in an uneasy détente.
In Syria, Iran-backed militias have propped up the Bashar al-Assad regime. So has the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Tehran’s most powerful regional proxy. Israel has reportedly launched hundreds of strikes targeting the buildup of Iran-backed forces near its border with Syria. These forces also operate near U.S. troops in eastern Syria.
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.”
“There is certainly a part of me that worries that they are building up a case so that if and when we are directly threatened, they have that as their reason for getting into a conflict with Iran without having to come back to Congress,” Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told me. “John Bolton has written about regime change in Iran his entire adult life. He, to me, is ideological about it. I don’t think that the president is looking to get into war with Iran, but I think different members of his administration have different opinions on what to do. And if you and I don’t understand the strategy in Iran, there is no way the Iranians do.”
Slotkin has worked with the kind of intelligence that Bolton and other U.S. officials have been citing. During the Iraq War, she was a CIA analyst who specialized in Shiite militias, and she was in Iraq in the spring of 2008, when Iran-backed militias were firing rockets on Baghdad’s Green Zone with intensity. Slotkin, who was also briefed on the recent intelligence, said that while it would “get the attention of any administration,” it was not clear-cut. Whether the Iranian activities at issue were defensive or offensive, she said, was “almost impossible to tell.”
Slotkin stressed the importance of viewing the intelligence in context. “I think that if you don’t understand the history and the context, then you’re able to look at this body of intelligence and feel more alarmed than someone who’s been watching it since 2003,” she said.
This muddled environment, and the chance for any escalation to lead to unpredictable consequences, is what worries the administration’s critics. The same network of Iranian proxies and allies that has come under increased U.S. scrutiny—from the Houthis in Yemen to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the militias of Syria and Iraq—can make serious trouble for America and its allies. In an analysis published last fall, Brian Katz, a U.S. intelligence official on leave from the government at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that Iran’s proxy networks should be seen as an alliance centered on common ideology and collective security. These groups, he wrote, have forged new military strength and political capability amid the region’s conflicts and “view Tehran and each other as battlefield partners, ideological allies, and separate flanks in a common regional front.”
Like the United States, each holds the capacity for escalation in reserve. Each round of tension and posturing between Washington and Iran therefore poses the risk of igniting a region-wide conflagration. As the fog of war thickens, it only makes miscalculation, or fresh aggression in the name of self-defense, more likely. While Trump may not want another U.S. war, his policy will also be judged for any new or worsened regional conflicts that result from it.
“Iran is not Syria. You can’t just lob a handful of Tomahawk missiles into Iran and not have that turn into something really messy and deadly,” Chris Murphy, one of the leading Democratic voices against Trump’s Iran policy in the Senate, told me.
On the other side of the debate are those who say the full context of Iranian threats across the Middle East is exactly what warrants a more aggressive U.S. policy. Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked as a U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, has long painted the Iran-backed militias there as uniquely dangerous to the United States. He briefed both Bolton and Pompeo before they joined the Trump administration, advocating the need for America to counter these groups more forcefully. He sees the new focus on Iran’s proxies as a necessary corrective to U.S. policy. Pregent told me he would expect meaningful U.S. escalation if an attack by Iran-backed forces results in U.S. casualties. “It’s grounds for a counterstrike,” he said of a hypothetical Iranian attack along these lines. “I think the intelligence community and the Department of Defense will look at the point of origin for the attack and link the attack [to Iran]. And I think politicians will be politicians.”
He said a U.S. strike could target a designated Shiite militia base in Iraq—or perhaps an Iranian military installation, such as the Parchin complex, that was not part of the nuclear agreement the Obama administration signed with Iran in 2015, from which Trump has withdrawn. Such an attack “would show that the U.S. is serious,” Pregent said, adding that the recent U.S. show of force could also serve as deterrence.
Will Hurd, a former CIA officer who is now a Republican representative on the House Intelligence Committee, told me that part of the murkiness that has fueled the debate over the recent intelligence is because of traditional constraints related to protecting sources and methods. But he said the intelligence has been used and interpreted responsibly. “The bottom line is that our military planners made what I thought were appropriate responses based on credible information that they received,” he said. “And the folks making these decisions were long-term, experienced military, diplomatic, and intelligence officers.”
During his time in the CIA, Hurd specialized in Afghanistan and Pakistan and worked undercover in the latter. But, as he put it, “when you’re an intelligence officer, you can’t not deal with Iran.”
He welcomed the expansion of the U.S. focus to a broader range of threats from Iran. Critics of Obama’s nuclear deal have long worried that it ignores other problems such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its proxies. “The Iranian issue is much larger than [the nuclear agreement]. You also have the fact that they are the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism,” Hurd said. “For years it was just a focus on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. And now we’re talking about their entire range of destabilization and asymmetrical activities.”