The announcement comes amid heightening tensions in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration is ratcheting up what it styles as a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. It has moved to choke off all Iranian oil exports and took the controversial step of listing the regime’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization — marking the first time the State Department has placed a foreign government entity in this category.
On Sunday, White House national security adviser John Bolton said the United States was deploying a carrier strike group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf “to 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.” Bolton added that the United States “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
Though the aircraft carrier had been en route to the region since last month, U.S. officials said they were responding to “specific and credible” intelligence, furnished possibly by Israeli sources, of an increased threat. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a planned meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, a stop that only added to the building sense of intrigue and crisis given Iran’s extensive influence in Iraq.
“The presence of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf is not unusual. What is unusual is the Trump administration’s level of bellicosity toward Iran,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. “With so much friction between Iran and the U.S. — and their respective allies in the region — and with no channel of communication between these parties, the risk of a confrontation is worryingly high.”
The vagueness of the U.S. claims about the Iranian threats — and the fact that Bolton, who has repeatedly advocated military action against Iran in the past, appeared to be leading the charge — sent alarm bells ringing among the administration’s critics. “We have been warning that Bolton’s appointment would lead to war,” tweeted Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation organization in Washington. “He has uncontested control of the national security apparatus and a history of cherry-picking intel and exaggerating threats. He is completely capable of goading Iran into war.”
Many cited a recent New Yorker profile of Bolton that focused on his questionable record during the administration of President George W. Bush. “We saw a pattern of Mr. Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views,” Tony Blinken, a former Senate staffer and State Department official, told the New Yorker. “If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalize the officials who had produced it.”
Now, experts fear that he — and the Trump administration, by extension — is seeking to push Iran into a fight. “Reframing a routine deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln strike force to the region only serves to unnecessarily heighten tensions and foster the potential for miscalculation,” wrote Dina Esfandiary for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “The only reason to do any of this is to push Iran into a corner, paving the way toward military confrontation — something few want because it will achieve little.”
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) warned against repeating the mistakes that led the United States to rush into the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And they lambasted Bolton as “a far-right proponent of regime change” whose “machinations have empowered Trump’s most dangerous instincts."
“Today, the United States stands alone in breach of the agreement, bullying friends and foes alike with threats and sanctions,” the senators wrote. “The lasting damage to our global standing has left us isolated with little opportunity to lead.”
Iranian security officials dismissed the latest U.S. moves as “psychological warfare.” At a briefing last month with U.S. journalists in New York City, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attacked Bolton for driving U.S. policy on Iran and suggested that the national security adviser was undermining his own president, whose eagerness to disentangle the United States from conflicts in the Middle East is well known. Zarif added that the Iranian regime had “a PhD in sanctions” and that it would be able to withstand and navigate around Trump’s pressure campaign.
Ordinary Iranians, though, are feeling the bite of the sanctions, which have led to the devaluation of the Iranian currency and raised prices on a vast range of goods. But rather than compelling the regime to curb its behavior along lines desired by Washington, the current state of play seems to have emboldened hard-line factions that long resented the nuclear deal and the attempted rapprochement with the United States. The intensification of animosities can only spell trouble.
“Unlike in the latter years of the Obama administration, there are currently no high-level lines of communication between Washington and Tehran to manage a crisis,” wrote Colin Kahl, a former official in the Obama White House. “And hard-liners on all sides seem keen for a fight, looking for opportunities to escalate, rather than de-escalate, tensions.”