The escalation started on May 5 with the news that an American aircraft carrier and bomber planes were en route to the Persian Gulf. They had to, in the words of National Security Adviser John Bolton, send “a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” [https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-national-security-advisor-ambassador-john-bolton-2/]
In various capitals, also in Washington, eyebrows were raised. The U.S. and Iran are admittedly at odds since Trump exited the nuclear deal last year. But what exactly was the reason for this escalation?
That confusion only increased this week when the U.S. suddenly recalled some of the personnel at the American embassy in Baghdad. After that, German and Dutch military training was suspended in Northern Iraq because of an Iranian threat in the region.
Finally, on Wednesday, things became clear. Photos supposedly existed of rockets that were mounted on small boats by Iranian paramilitary groups. Also, there were rumors of attacks on oil tankers and against American troops in Iraq by local pro-Iran militias.
By that time, the international media had already published numerous articles that warned of a repeat of 2003. Then, the Bush administration dragged the world into a war against Iraq based on intelligence that later turned out to be false. That comparison was partially inspired by John Bolton.
At the time, Bolton was one of the hawks that convinced Bush to invade Iraq after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Iran was then already high on Bolton's list of countries eligible for regime change.
When Bolton was appointed by Trump as National Security Adviser last April, he quickly asked the Pentagon for air attacks on Iran. A month after Bolton's appointment, Trump exited the U.S. from the nuclear deal.
But if there are comparisons with 2003, then there are just as many differences. The biggest difference is Trump. While Bush did not need much convincing to invade Iraq, Trump was chosen precisely for his isolationist program. During his campaign, he continuously criticized the costly foreign military adventures in which his predecessors had involved the U.S.
Iran is not Iraq
In response to a journalist's question whether there will be war with Iran, Trump said this week: “I hope not.” [https://www.ft.com/content/1e59341a-77fa-11e9-be7d-6d846537acab] On Twitter, he tweeted a post by The New York Times about his secretary of defense's plans to send 120,000 troops to the Gulf as fake news. According to the newspaper, Trump told him this week that he did not want a war with Iran.
Iran is not Iraq. Iran is three times larger, and the Iranian army is a much more formidable opponent than Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces. Furthermore, it was (wrongly) stated in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now, the concern involves the possibility that Iran uses enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
It is telling that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who invariably urges Trump for a tough stance against Iran, supposedly ordered his security forces not to pull Israel into a confrontation. The United Arab Emirates, via press agency Bloomberg, issued a similar statement. Only Saudi Arabia, Iran's arch-rival in the region, sounded the war rhetoric. A newspaper, owned by the brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, called for hard action against Iran.
Trump's intimate relationship with Riyadh is also his Achilles’ heel. Last month, Trump used his presidential veto against a resolution in the U.S. Senate aimed at withdrawing American support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The Saudis are fighting against the Houthi rebels in Yemen who Riyadh claims are supported by Tehran. The Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack on a Saudi oil pipeline this week. Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting the attack.
According to some, it is a chicken-or-egg type of situation: what Washington sees as an Iranian threat is supposedly an Iranian reaction to what Tehran sees as an American threat. Last week, Iran said it would no longer respect the 2015 restrictions on the enrichment of uranium. Washington warned that Tehran crosses a red line if it enriches enough uranium within a year to build a nuclear weapon.
This week, an official from the Trump administration told TV network NBC that the comparison should not be with 2003, but with 2011. At the time, American installations in Iraq were attacked by Shiite militia who wanted to expedite the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.
For the past five years, the Americans have formed an uneasy coalition with the pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, because they had the same goal: to fight against the IS. Now that IS seems to have been defeated on the conventional battlefield, those militias want the Americans to get out as soon as possible.