Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The Post reports on escalating tensions between the United States and Iran after apparent Iranian attacks on tanker ships and a threat to exceed the enrichment levels set out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which President Trump renounced:

The Iranian uranium threat was followed by an announcement by acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan that he was sending approximately 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East “for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats.”

President Trump has said repeatedly that his goal in Iran is “no nuclear weapons” and that he does not want war. But events seem to be quickly moving in the opposite directions on both counts.

Our allies are displeased with Iran, but they also put the blame on Trump for having pulled out of the JCPOA with no real planning. (“On Iran, France, Germany and the European Union believe the U.S. president has put them in an impossible position — and made the Iranian threat far worse than it was a year ago for no good reason. Of the European partners to the deal, only Britain so far has accepted that it is ‘almost certain’ that Iran attached mines to the oil tankers last week.”)

With the introduction of 1,000 troops, the president who was elected pledging to draw down American forces abroad and keep the United States out of Middle East wars seems to be itching for a fight — although he claims not to be. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (it has been months since James Mattis left, and we have no confirmed replacement) said in a written statement, “I have authorized approximately 1,000 additional troops for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East.” He added: “The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests. We will continue to monitor the situation diligently and make adjustments to force levels as necessary given intelligence reporting and credible threats.”

While Trump and his national security team might see the deployment of troops as a show of strength, “adding 1,000 troops — if that was supposed to send a message — likely sends the opposite message of that which they intended, as it suggests that the U.S. is not serious about doing anything militarily,” observes Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress. “The Trump administration’s policy of pressuring and isolating Iran seems only to have isolated us and further eroded our relationship with our European allies, who are all extremely wary of what this administration is planning.”

What is the purpose of this deployment, and where precisely are the troops going? Has anyone in Congress been briefed on the troops’ specific mission? As of Monday night, the answer appeared to be no. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put out a written statement that observed, “Americans must have no illusions about the Iranian regime, and must remain committed to holding Iran accountable for its dangerous activities in the region.” She nevertheless warned that “we must be strong, smart and strategic — not reckless and rash — in how to proceed. The Congress must be immediately briefed on the Administration’s decisions and plans.” She urged, "Diplomacy is needed to defuse tensions, therefore America must continue to consult with our allies so that we do not make the region less safe.”

This is yet another example of the degree to which Congress has marginalized itself concerning vital national security issues, which have the potential to lead to hostilities.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and opposed the JCPOA but warned against Trump’s unilateral withdrawal), tells me: “To start, we need to remember that the bad actor is Iran. They are the ones who have long sought nuclear weapons and have violated other international standards.” However, he adds, “Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s response to Iran has heightened the risk that a miscalculation or miscommunication could lead to a dangerous result.” Trump is obviously in a poor position to complain about Iran’s violation of a deal to which the United States is no longer a party. “The U.S. should be in a position of strength to push back on Iran’s threat to stockpile uranium. Instead, we have few direct options and left it to the Europeans — who are still in the nuclear agreement — to negotiate further freezes," observes Cardin. “This latest threat is a blatant attempt to gain negotiating leverage and Donald Trump has only escalated the situation.” He concludes, "He’s put the Europeans in a tough position — they don’t trust Iran but they also cannot rely on President Trump. We need to move from a position of volatility to stability.”

In sum, after acting unilaterally to pull out of the JCPOA, showing no fidelity to facts and berating allies for more than two years, the Trump administration can hardly be surprised to find so little support for its assertion about Iranian aggression. “The current crisis with Iran — likely to get worse before it gets worse — is yet another example of Trump’s coming up with a solution (withdrawal from a flawed but still functional JCPOA) to a problem we didn’t have and making that problem worse in the process,” tweeted veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller.

Perhaps it’s time for Congress to get more deeply involved in foreign policy, both in exercising oversight authority and the power of the purse.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is seen as all bluff and no policy on Iran

Max Boot: In Iran crisis, our worst fears about Trump are realized

Jason Rezaian: What the Iran crisis tells us about Trump’s lack of credibility

The Post’s View: Trump has backed himself into a dangerous corner on Iran

David Ignatius: Is the Iran-U.S. tinderbox about to ignite?

Jason Rezaian: Why does the U.S. need trolls to make its Iran case?