The New York Times– The last thing the United States needs is another war in the Middle East. Yet a drumbeat of provocative words, outright threats and actions — from President Trump and some of his top aides as well as Sunni Arab leaders and American activists — is raising tensions that could lead to armed conflict with Iran.
Tehran invites some of this hostility with moves like detaining Xiyue Wang, a Princeton scholar, and supporting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. And for many American politicians, Iran — estranged from the United States since 1979 — deserves only punishment and isolation. But Iran and the United States also share some interests, like fighting the Islamic State. So why not take advantage of all the diplomatic tools, including opening a dialogue, used before to manage difficult and even hostile governments?
It is useful to recall the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, arguably America’s biggest strategic blunder in modern times. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the country was riveted on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But in Washington, the talk turned almost immediately to Iraq and the chance to overthrow Saddam Hussein, even though he had nothing to do with Sept. 11 and had no nuclear weapons, as President George W. Bush alleged. Mr. Bush decided to fight a pre-emptive war without a solid justification or strategy.
Such a stumble into war could happen again. Here are some reasons to be concerned:
■ President Trump campaigned on a pledge to tear up the 2015 seven-nation nuclear pact under which Iran rolled back its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. Although he twice certified to Congress, most recently on Monday, that Iran remains in compliance with the deal, he did so grudgingly and with the subsequent imposition of new sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile tests. The Iranians say Mr. Trump is in danger of violating the agreement, especially after urging European leaders not to do business with Iran. A central promise of the deal was that Tehran would benefit economically in exchange for its nuclear restraint. Instead of taking advantage of this diplomatic breakthrough, Mr. Trump seems intent on reversing it by provoking Iran to renege or reneging himself, in much the way he rejected the Paris climate accord.
■ Congress, which was overwhelmingly opposed to the nuclear deal when it was signed, is working on new sanctions. Republicans in particular have pressed Mr. Trump to toughen his approach. In a recent letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, four senators said Iran continues to wage “regional aggression, sponsor international terrorism, develop ballistic missile technology and oppress the Iranian people.” There’s truth in that. But the nuclear deal was intended to alleviate only the nuclear threat, and they, like other critics, fail to acknowledge that it represented important progress toward decreasing the risk of war in the region.
■ Top American officials have turned up their rhetoric and have hinted at support for regime change, despite the dismal record in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Mr. Tillerson accused Iran of seeking regional hegemony at the expense of American allies like Saudi Arabia. “Our policy toward Iran is to push back on this hegemony … and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government,” he told a congressional committee. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently called Iran “ the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”
■ Since the 1979 revolution that installed a theocracy in Iran, American leaders have periodically toyed with regime change. But some experts say this time is more serious, because Mr. Trump accepts the simplistic view of Sunni-led Saudi Arabia that Shiite-led Iran is to blame for all that’s wrong in the region, taking sides in the feud between two branches of Islam.
The Saudis, who were already facing off against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, have taken an even harsher stance since their leadership change. This month, they created a crisis by mounting a regional boycott against Qatar, which has relations with Iran. Israel also considers Iran a virulent threat, one reason for a deepening alignment between Israel and the Sunni states, and from time to time has reportedly urged America to attack Iran or considered doing so itself.
■ Anti-Iran voices outside government are trying to push Mr. Trump and Congress toward confrontation with Iran. The head of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish group that tried to block the Iran nuclear deal, urged Mr. Trump in a recent Wall Street Journal opinionarticle to “systemically dismantle Iranian power country by country in the Middle East” and to strengthen Iran’s pro-democracy forces. Prominent Trump supporters like John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations; Newt Gingrich, former House speaker; and Rudolph Giuliani, former New York mayor, are pressing Mr. Trump to abandon the deal and are speaking out on behalf of the Mujahedeen Khalq, exiled Iranian dissidents who back regime change.
Most Americans are aware of Iran’s crimes against this country, including the 52 Americans taken hostage in 1979; the 241 Marines killed in the 1983 bombing of their barracks in Lebanon; and the 1996 bombing of the Air Force quarters in Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps less known are events that still anger Iranians — like the 1953 coup aided by the C.I.A. that ousted Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, and America’s intelligence support for Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Iran’s grievances do not make its recent behavior any less concerning. Tehran continues to fund Hezbollah and other extremists; detain Americans; and work to expand its reach, including in Iraq. Iran and the United States appear to be entering a particularly risky time. As the Islamic State gets pushed out of Iraq and Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with their proxy forces, will be competing for control. Any attempt at regime change in Iran could destabilize the volatile Middle East in even more unpredictable ways.
Iran’s government continues to be torn between anti-American hard-liners and moderates like President Hassan Rouhani who are willing to engage with America. Mr. Trump would make a grave mistake if instead of trying to work with those moderate forces he led the nation closer to war.