Donald Trump Holds Back his Hawks on Iran—But Is it Too Little, Too Late? | Opinion

Last night, Trump canceled an order to strike Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone operating in or near Iranian airspace. The last-minute decision comes as a rare rebuke to Iran hawks in Washington, who thus far had gotten almost everything they have wanted out of President Trump. His predecessor's nuclear deal is hanging by a thread, and now Iran is responding to maximum pressure with its own escalatory measures. While a war is not yet guaranteed, the U.S. and Iran are squaring right up to each other's red lines, while quickly running out of exit ramps.

Absurdly, the Trump administration continues to maintain the fiction that its pressure track is succeeding. But such a conclusion can only be reached if your goal is war. Iran's downing of a U.S. drone follows a series of escalatory measures. The administration has charged Iran with attacks on oil tankers in May and June, as well as firing a missile at a drone in the Gulf of Oman and helping Houthi rebels to down a drone in Yemen. Iran is poised to exceed certain limits under the nuclear accord in a matter of days, more than a year after Trump initially violated all U.S. sanctions-lifting obligations. While these escalations were widely predicted, the pace of confrontations is dangerously accelerating, and the hawks who have spurred Trump's maximum pressure policy are now seizing upon the heightened threats they triggered to push for the war they've long craved.

In the preceding weeks, National Security Advisor John Bolton had already requested military options from the Pentagon, including plans to send 120,000 or more additional troops to the Middle East and strike Iran with up to 500 missiles per day. On Face the Nation Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly intimated yet again that the administration – contrary to the facts – has authorization to start a war with Iran. "[W]e always have the authorization to defend American interests," said Pompeo. "Remember, they now have attacked U.S. aircraft."

The cheerleaders for war have wasted little time in beating the war drums louder still. Sen. Marco Rubio foolishly echoed Pompeo's claims that the administration has the authority for strikes on Iran, saying Trump "doesn't need Congressional authorization to defend our nation against attacks." Sen. Tom Cotton, to no surprise, stated on Face the Nation that "[t]hese unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike." New York Times columnist Bret Stephens – while claiming that "[n]obody wants a war with Iran," – simultaneously argued that we would be right to sink Iran's navy. Similarly, Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations have written that Iran's "fragile theocracy can't absorb a massive external shock" and that it "is an exhausted regime, perhaps well on its way to extinction."

This narrative fails to recognize that it was maximum pressure that triggered Iran's escalatory moves to begin with. And, just like in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, these hawks assert an urgent need to respond militarily to a threat of uncertain magnitude, while minimizing the costs of starting a war with Iran.

Yet Iran would not respond to American attacks by rolling over and playing dead. It's far more likely that Iran retaliates, perhaps by launching missiles in a bid to sink U.S. navy vessels. Or, else Iran could strike a U.S. military base or attack America's regional partners in Saudi Arabia or Israel. In that eventuality, the warhawks who have cheered Trump's maximum pressure campaign will undoubtedly argue there is only one possible response: the dismantlement of the Iranian regime via all-out war and American occupation of Iran. Such a campaign – to conquer a nation nearly four times the size of Iraq with far more formidable military capabilities – would be tremendously costly in blood, treasure, and regional stability.

President Trump, meanwhile, sounds as if he is searching for a way out of the box that the hawks have set for him. Reuters reported that Trump sent a message to Iran last night warning that an attack was imminent and requesting talks, which failed to elicit a change in Iran's position that it would not negotiate under pressure. And, according to the Daily Beast, Trump "has privately pushed his representatives to walk back their tough talk on Iran—and reiterate that the administration is not aiming to go to war with Tehran."

Yet, with the administration's strategy having already triggered a dangerous situation in the Middle East, far more urgent action is needed to step back from the brink. Congress can and should clarify with all haste that the Trump administration does not have authorization to start a war with Iran. U.S. allies in Europe, also, need to recognize the risks and redouble efforts to intercede with Trump and prevent the situation from further unraveling. If action is not taken soon, it may be too late to prevent a generational catastrophe that will haunt the U.S., Iran and the region.

Ryan Costello is Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC.) He tweets @RN_Costello.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​