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Americans are weary of Middle Eastern wars and skeptical of claims from our intelligence agencies supporting such conflict. While the attack on Iraq in 2003 depended on intelligence suggesting an ongoing nuclear weapons program and attacks on Syria occurred after Bashar al-Assad’s supposed use of illegal chemical weapons against civilians, both of these assumptions either were refuted or at least face serious, evidence-based criticism.
In comparison, the most recent charge against Iran—a mine attack on a Japanese cargo vessel that caused no casualties—is pretty weak sauce. As far as its magnitude, this is hardly Pearl Harbor. At the same time, the grainy video of an Iranian patrol boat parked alongside the vessel does not prove to the satisfaction of reasonable American skeptics that Iran was responsible for the explosion.
War Drums In the Distance
The recent incident occurred in a climate of sharpening anti-Iranian rhetoric from the United States, in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton, as well as our country’s regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. The three nations have aligned against Iran in recent years. This focus on Shiite Iran has occurred, even as the most dramatic and deadly terror attacks in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East have chiefly come from Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
While much of the anti-Iran rhetoric employs the language of counter-terrorism, balance of power politics are the real source of hostility. Iran is a regional competitor to Saudi Arabia, and the two countries are engaged in a proxy war for influence in conflicts occurring in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Israel has reached a modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia, and appears little concerned with extremist groups unaffiliated with Iran. The whole situation is byzantine in its complexity, and the moral rights and wrongs of the Sunni-Shia conflicts are ambiguous at best.
Skepticism Is In Order
There is good reason to be skeptical of the claims of Iranian involvement in this attack. For starters, an attack like this would not seem to benefit Iran, and Iran is justifiably wary of an American attack. While it has the home turf advantage, Iran faces the prospect of crippling air strikes and other costs if the United States were to wage war.
As far as the alleged maritime attack, the ship in question was operated by a Japanese company with a Japanese crew. The Japanese prime minister was visiting Tehran at the time of the attack. Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and American intelligence agencies have circulated a video purporting to be a “slam dunk” showing an Iranian military vessel removing a mine from the side of the damaged cargo ship. But Iran claims to have sent ships to aid the crew, some of whom ended up in Iranian custody.
More important, the Japanese crew said they saw an airborne attack of some kind, which would suggest that the story about “limpet mines” is, at least, disputable. According to reports, “Company president Yutaka Katada said Friday he believes the flying objects seen by the sailors could have been bullets. He denied any possibility of mines or torpedoes because the damage was above the ship’s waterline. He called reports of a mine attack ‘false.’”
This attack follows close on the heels of earlier alleged attacks involving mines on ships in the Persian Gulf and a drone attack upon a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline.
The recent history of highly politicized intelligence in the Skirpal poisoning incident, Syrian chemical attacks, Russian collusion, and most notoriously Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have combined to limit the willingness of Americans and their politicians to believe their intelligence agencies uncritically, especially when their advice would lead to war.
Apart from the uncertainty of the intelligence, war could only be justified in an extreme case where the stakes are high and there is a clear path to victory. In Iraq, while the intelligence was ultimately incorrect, the stakes were reasonably high. An advancing nuclear program hosted by an openly hostile state is a serious matter that may sometimes justify a preemptive strike. Even if one accepted the official account of the recent Iranian tanker attacks, a few mines is hardly of the same magnitude.
One should also consider the background of the Iraq intelligence, where various constituencies and ideologues wanted the evidence to reach a particular conclusion. In these cases, particularly high degrees of skepticism are called for. After all, there is no reason to think it beyond the ability or ethics of the Mossad, the CIA, or the Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies to push things along to a desired conclusion. These things have been done or planned before. While we like to think our nation would not do such things, as Trump himself observed during the 2016 campaign, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Drain Foreign Policy Swamp, Too
As in his domestic policy, Trump faces the risk of individuals and agencies with their own agendas either resisting his efforts or dragging him where they already wanted to go. While America’s Mideast policy has been ineffective and costly, it is constrained by a great deal of inertia and influenced by various stakeholders, particularly our continued alliances with Israel and the various Sunni regimes. Open conflict with Iran obtains support from both of these sources, but while Iran is certainly no friend to the United States, the broader strategic picture does not point to an obvious benefit to American interests from such a conflict.
Whether the attacks came from Iran, Saudi Arabia, or an even worse regime in the region, they all must ultimately sell their oil to benefit from it. Whether Sunni or Shia, both sides appear to be in the grips of centuries-old sectarian conflict in which America has no stake and can do little to resolve.
Iraq was a mistake. The mistake was rooted in excessive trust of our intelligence agencies, excessive optimism about our ability to shape results, and listening to the advice of interested parties, particularly Israel, which accrued the benefits but bore little of the burden of U.S. efforts. The current push for war with Iran has many of the same features. We should ensure that we are not dragged into another conflict by our allies that does little to benefit America or its interests.