Either the Trump government is trying to bring Iran to war or a war may come by chance because of the government's reckless policies, but the prospect that current tensions in the Middle East escalate into a serious conflict is now dangerously high.
This week, four commercial tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic shipping lane for around 40 percent of the world's oil. Saudi Arabia also reported that drones have attacked an oil pipeline, possibly by Houthis who has been supported by Iran. Both incidents caused increasing tensions, while anonymous American officials in the press cited Iran as the perpetrator. Tehran has denied this.
In addition, during a meeting with European Foreign Ministers in Brussels, Minister Mike Pompeo reportedly shared reports of escalating Iranian threats in the Middle East. On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry announced that it would attract unnecessary personnel from Iraq, citing unspecified Iranian threats. This came after increased US sanctions against Iran and the relocation of an American aircraft carrier and B-52 & # 39; s to the Persian Gulf. As Iran threatens to withdraw from the joint comprehensive action plan, better known as the Iranian nuclear deal, the Trump government launched plans to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East should war come.
But war is not inevitable. President Trump campaigned to bring troops home and no longer sent tens of thousands to the Middle East. Such a commitment, although insufficient for a complete war, is more than foolish. War in the Middle East, as we should have learned now, is neither quick to end nor sure to reach its goal.
The best way to prevent war is to talk to Iran, what President Trump has said he wants to do. Prisoner swap negotiations, to bring home Americans who are locked up or missing in Iran, can be an important channel of communication and the Tehran leadership is open to this. But a meeting from leader to leader can only take place if the United States re-enters the nuclear deal – and at the moment that unfortunately seems unlikely.
The good news is that Congress, the allies of America and others can intervene to prevent a disastrous conflict.
Although bipartisanism is scarce, caution is still a common cause when sending US troops abroad. Both houses of Congress must immediately hold hearings about the leaked war plans. If the administration will not offer Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, as a witness, Congress must agree with anyone who sends and records the administration of the joint chiefs or his representative during the hearing. This hearing should be public, but Congress should also welcome a secret session to discuss leaked intelligence, derived from conspiracies by Iran.
Congress should also use its powers to challenge the legal authority for a war with Iran. The Senate is scheduled to mark the National Authority for Defense Powers 2020 next week. This offers the possibility to limit the use of defense dollars for a new war and gives Congress the opportunity to develop a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force – another problem with support on both sides of the aisle. Those in Congress who want to avoid a war must remind the country that the debate about empowering the use of force against Saddam Hussein was presented as a way to strengthen the hand of the president for diplomacy, George W. Bush gave the authority he invaded Iraq.
There are other, calmer ways to encourage peaceful results in the Middle East. Congress, along with think tanks and private donors, should support talks between scholars and opinion leaders in Iran, the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Such a dialogue, sometimes supplemented by government representatives, can help to de-escalate the chance of conflicts. The recent Op-Ed in this newspaper by Hossein Mousavian, an Iranian scholar and former diplomat, and Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi investigator, is a courageous first step in such method.
The congress should also invite foreign and defense ministers from France, Germany and Great Britain, all of whom have signed the nuclear deal with Iran, to testify why it is in everyone's interest to sign the agreement maintain diplomacy and not to take military action with Iran. European security officials have already been contesting the characterization of American intelligence on Iranian threats. Hearing such officials in Congress will at least help Americans understand that the Trump government 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 another role to play in helping Iran resolve a potential conflict with the United States. Europe must make Instex, its financial mechanism designed to offer Iran some investment and humanitarian aid, real and viable. The Trump administration has threatened with sanctions against Europe if Instex enters into force. Faced with the possibility of a war that would be catastrophic for the entire world – including Europe – that is a risk worth taking. American and European business leaders, members of Congress and government and opinion leaders around the world must publicly join European countries.
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 war in Iraq, when even many of our most reliable news media repeated and reinforced what was actually a faint case of war.
It is quite possible that none of these actions will stop John Bolton, president of President Trump's national security adviser, in his long-held ambition for regime change in Iran, with weapons if necessary. And maybe even Mr. Trump promises a "wagging" strategy in the run-up to the 2020 elections, gathering his supporters around a & # 39; wartime & # 39; president. But a military conflict with Iran would have historical negative consequences for US national security, economy and status in the world. We can't just let it happen.
Wendy R. Sherman is a professor and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. She is the first under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, leading negotiator of the nuclear deal with Iran, and the author of "Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence. "