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Democrats are raising alarms about Trump 'inching' toward war with Iran, but experts are torn over what happens next

May 8, 2019
In The News

After the White House announced it's deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran, Democratic lawmakers warned that President Donald Trump is "inching" toward war.

Some experts say these fears are overblown, but others are concerned that Trump doesn't understand the risks of a military confrontation with Iran.

National Security Adviser John Bolton in a statement last Sunday said that the deployment of military assets was designed to send "a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack" on the US or its allies "will be met with unrelenting force."

Bolton added, "The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack."

The Trump administration has also reportedly discussed a plan to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks US forces in the region or makes big steps toward developing nuclear weapons. Trump has denied these reports but also said he's prepared to send"a hell of a lot more" troops than 120,000 if necessary.

Democrats are wary of Bolton, who has publicly advocated for striking Iran and was an architect of the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was sold to the public on the false premise that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.

Separately, a US official said the show of force was in response to"clear indications" of a "possible attack" against US forces in the region by Iran or its proxies, and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan described the move as a "prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces."

Republican lawmakers have echoed Bolton and generally support the Trump administration's tough stance on Iran.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a tweet last Monday the US is "not looking to start a war with Iran" but added that "any efforts by Iran to threaten shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and/or to target U.S. naval vessels or commercial shipping vessels will result in a swift, devastating & justified response."

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who also sits on the committee, said last week that the president "has a responsibility to protect our citizens."And Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said he would support "any reasonable action that will deter [Iran's] egregious conduct," describing the Middle Eastern country as a "cancer on the world."

Meanwhile, Democrats have raised alarm bells.

"Hey everybody, we are at war in 3 different countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria — and inching toward conflict in 2 more — Venezuela and Iran," Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a tweet last Tuesday.

Similarly, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside Murphy, tweeted last Monday, "The Trump administration's team of saber-rattling foreign policy advisors are all but openly shouting their desire for an unauthorized & unconstitutional war [with] Iran."

Udall urged Congress to "act immediately" to "stop this reckless march to war before it's too late."

Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, expressed similar sentiments.

"I'm very concerned," Khanna last week told MSNBC. "[Trump is] trying to get us entangled in yet another war in the Middle East."

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of the leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination, on Tuesday said a war with Iran would be an "unmitigated disaster."

"The American people do not want endless war! We cannot allow Donald Trump and his national security advisor, John Bolton, to drag us into a war with Iran," Sanders said in a tweet.

Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser for Sanders, told INSIDER that Democrats have "very valid" reasons to be concerned "about the direction this situation is going" because "Bolton has expressed support for war with Iran multiple times."

"Any president has a duty to respond to credible threats by taking steps to protect Americans," Duss said. "Unfortunately, this president's Iran policy is being driven by someone, John Bolton, with a well-documented history of misrepresenting intelligence to justify reckless military action. We saw how this worked out with the Iraq war, the worst foreign policy disaster in modern American history, for which Bolton was a major advocate."

'A very real risk'

Bolton has a long record of hawkishness toward Tehran and in the past has suggested that "a military action" against Iran is the only way the US can achieve its goal of preventing it from becoming a nuclear power.

In a 2015 op-ed for The New York Times titled "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran," for example, Bolton wrote, "The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action...can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed."

And speaking on a potential strike against Iran in 2008, Bolton said, "I think obviously this needs to be done in a careful and prudent fashion. But I think that the strategic situation now is that if we don't respond, the Iranians will take it as a sign of weakness."

Despite Bolton's animus toward Iran and history of condoning a military strike against it, some experts still aren't convinced the Trump administration is marching toward war.

Ian Bremmer, founder and director of Eurasia Group, told INSIDER warnings of a potential conflict with Iran are "overblown."

Bremmer said it's "unclear there was any firm intelligence" on Iran planning attacks on "US assets either directly or through proxies." He called Bolton's statement from Sunday "high on bluster" and "short on substance."

James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told INSIDER that the US has "no interest in war" with Iran and "least of all the president." Carafano said the current plan is meant to "increase pressure"and not to "spark conflict or regime change."

"The US deployment is designed to deter conflict and escalation," Carafano added. "Iran isn't interested in war either. They seem more interested in waiting Trump out."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last Wednesday announced Tehran is partially withdrawing from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal — a landmark agreement that Trump withdrew the US from last May. Iran has otherwise not taken any particularly dramatic actions in response to the Trump administration's recent moves. And Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday said his country would not go to war with the US.

But there is still "a very real risk that the cycle of political and diplomatic escalation can get out of hand, and turn into a military confrontation," Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, told INSIDER.

"In the past, accidents and inadvertent contact between Iran and US military capabilities did not escalate into war, but it is not clear that President Trump understands the risk, or that NSA John Bolton wants to avoid those risks," Wolfsthal added.