The New York Times | Wendy R. Sherman: Congress, Europe and business leaders can stand in John Bolton’s way.
Either the Trump administration is trying to goad Iran into war or a war could come by accident because of the administration’s reckless policies, but the prospect of the current tensions in the Middle East escalating into a serious conflict is now dangerously high.
This week, four commercial tankers were reportedly sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic shipping lane for about 40 percent of the world’s oil. Saudi Arabia also reported that drones sent by Houthis attacked Saudi oil facilities. Both incidents ratcheted up tensions as anonymous American officials in the press pointed to Iran as the perpetrator. Tehran has denied this.
Additionally, during a meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly shared reports of escalating Iranian threats in the Middle East. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that it was pulling nonessential staff from Iraq, citing unspecified Iranian threats. This came after increased American sanctions against Iran and the movement of an American aircraft carrier and B-52s to the Persian Gulf. With Iran threatening to step back further from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration leaked plans to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if war is to come.
But war is not inevitable. President Trump campaigned on bringing troops home, not sending tens of thousands more to the Middle East. Such a deployment, although inadequate for a full-scale war, is more than foolish. War in the Middle East, as we should have learned by now, is neither swift to end nor sure to achieve its purpose.
The best way to avoid war is to talk with Iran, which President Trump has said he wants to do. Prisoner-swap negotiations, to bring home Americans imprisoned or missing in Iran, could create an important channel of communication, and the leadership in Tehran is open to this. But a leader-to-leader meeting can happen only if the United States rejoins the nuclear deal — and at this point that unfortunately seems unlikely.
The good news is that Congress, America’s allies and others can intervene to avert a disastrous conflict.
Although bipartisanship is scarce, caution in sending American troops abroad remains a common cause. Both houses of Congress should immediately hold hearings on the leaked war plans. If the administration won’t provide Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, as a witness, then Congress should agree to whoever the administration sends and include in the hearing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or his designee. This hearing should be public, but Congress should also welcome a classified session to discuss leaked intelligence alleging plots by Iran.
Congress should also use its powers to challenge the legal authority for a war with Iran. The Senate is scheduled to mark up the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act next week. This provides an opportunity to limit the use of defense dollars for a new war and gives Congress a chance to develop a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force that would limit the administration’s ability to wage war on Iran.
Those in Congress who wish to avoid a war need to remind the country that the debate over authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein, which was presented as a way to strengthen the president’s hand for diplomacy, ended up giving George W. Bush the authority he used to invade Iraq.
There are other, quieter ways to encourage peaceful outcomes in the Middle East. Congress — along with think tanks and private donors — should support conversations between scholars and opinion leaders in Iran, the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Such dialogue, sometimes joined by government representatives, can help de-escalate the potential for conflict. The recent Op-Ed essay in this newspaper by Hossein Mousavian, an Iranian scholar and former diplomat, and Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi researcher, is one courageous first step in such a process.
Congress should also invite the foreign and defense ministers of France, Germany and Britain — all of which are signatories to the Iran nuclear deal — to testify about why it is in everyone’s interest to maintain the agreement and pursue diplomacy, not military action, in dealing with Iran. European security officials have already been contesting the characterization of American intelligence about Iranian threats. Hearing from such officials in Congress will, at the least, help Americans understand that the Trump administration is isolated from the rest of the world.
Europe has already done heroic work to keep the nuclear deal intact, but Paris, Berlin and London have a further role to play in helping Iran step away a potential conflict with the United States. Europe must make Instex, its financial mechanism designed to provide some investment and humanitarian assistance to Iran, real and viable. The Trump administration has threatened sanctions against Europe if Instex comes into force. With the possibility of a war that would be catastrophic for the entire world — including Europe — looming, that is a risk worth taking. American and European business leaders, members of Congress, and government and opinion leaders worldwide should publicly stand with European countries in this effort.
Finally, it is crucial that the news media in the United States and elsewhere continue its crusade for the facts about what is going on with Iran. We cannot repeat the days before the Iraq war when even many of our most reliable news outlets repeated and amplified what was, in fact, a flimsy case for war.
It’s quite possible that none of these actions will halt John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, in his long-held ambition for regime change in Iran, by force of arms if necessary. And maybe even Mr. Trump sees promise in a “wag the dog” strategy in the run-up to the 2020 election, rallying his supporters around a “wartime” president. But a military conflict with Iran would have historic negative consequences for America’s national security, economy and standing in the world. We cannot just let it happen.
Wendy R. Sherman is a professor and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the former under secretary of state for political affairs, lead negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal, and the author of “Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence.”