For the past month and a half, the US and much of the world has been consumed by a terrifying question: Is America going to war with Iran?
It’s an understandable question. The Trump administration says an Iranian strike on Americans in the Middle East remains “imminent” and has blamed Tehran for attacks on oil tankers in a vital waterway. Iran, meanwhile, has told its proxies to prepare for war and indicated it may stop abiding by the 2015 nuclear deal within just a matter of days (though it hasn’t said that it plans to pursue a nuclear weapon).
Those developments, combined with the rise of Iran hawks in the administration like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have led to widespread fear that some sort of conflict between Washington and Tehran is imminent.
Here’s the good news: Right now it seems fairly unlikely that a full-blown war is on the horizon — even though a limited strike was considered this week — mostly because President Donald Trump and American allies don’t want one. Nor does Iran, it seems.
But the situation is still very tense, and the room for error and miscalculation on both sides remains high.
So what exactly is going on? How did we get here? Why did this escalation happen so suddenly? And what would a conflict with Iran even look like, anyway?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. What follows are answers to some of the most pressing questions about the latest US-Iran standoff; hopefully they’ll allow you to breathe just a little easier.
1) What is actually going on?
The current crisis started on May 5, when National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was deploying an aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of threats from Iran.
This move, Bolton said, was meant “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” He said that the US “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” but added, “we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
At the time, it was unclear exactly what that intelligence said, but reports over the following days provided a bit more clarity. Iran apparently intended to target US troops in Iraq and Syria, or even use drones against Americans in a key waterway near Yemen. There was also information that Iran put cruise missiles on ships, heightening fears that it might attack US Navy vessels with them.
The severity of the intelligence remains in dispute, and some say Bolton and others have inflated the threat. What isn’t in dispute is that America’s response dramatically raised the tension between the two countries — and a series of subsequent events only made things worse.
On May 8, three days after Bolton’s statement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country would no longer comply with parts of the 2015 nuclear deal if European signatories to the deal didn’t provide Iran with financial relief within 60 days.
Specifically, Rouhani said Iran would start stockpiling extra low-enriched uranium and heavy water, the kind used in nuclear reactors that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon, and would enrich uranium to previously banned levels.
All those actions remain banned by the agreement, which Iran, as well as some European powers, Russia, and China, is still party to. But Tehran’s decision, which it telegraphed days in advance, came exactly one year after Trump ended the US’s commitment to the accord.
Rouhani made sure all of that wasn’t an escalation. “The path we have chosen today is not the path of war,” he said, “it is the path of diplomacy.”
Still, that set the stage for a potential confrontation: The Trump administration doesn’t want Iran to get a nuclear weapon, and while Rouhani’s announcement still wouldn’t put Tehran anywhere near obtaining the bomb, it inched a little closer. And with the threat of a military fight hanging over it all, the chance for miscalculation grew.
But it didn’t stop there. A few days later, four oil tankers were damaged in attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway aggressively patrolled by Iran through which a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 percent of the world’s oil production flows.
Two of the oil tankers belonged to Saudi Arabia and one belonged to the United Arab Emirates — both staunch enemies of Iran and friends to the US. (The fourth was owned by a Norwegian company.) United Nations ambassadors from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Norway said two weeks ago that the damages came after a country used divers to place mines on the large ships. The diplomats didn’t specifically name Iran as the culprit, but the US had already blamed Tehran for the sabotage.
Iran denied any involvement. But one day after the suspected attack, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched an assault on a Saudi oil pipeline. And one of Iran’s top military leaders reportedly told militias in Iraq to prepare for a war, prompting the US to remove some staff from the embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil last month.
Then, last week, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman — just east of the Strait of Hormuz — were damaged in suspected attacks. The Trump administration said Iran was responsible.
That was followed by an Iranian official on Monday saying his country would stockpile enough low-enriched uranium that it would blow through the limits imposed in the 2015 nuclear deal, the same one the US withdrew from last year. The US soon after responded y saying it would send 1,000 more troops to the Middle East to counter Iran.
And then on Wednesday night or Thursday morning (the timing is still unclear), Iran shot down a US military drone (no one was hurt). That’s by far the biggest provocation yet in the weeks-long standoff, and could cause the tensions to skyrocket.
Trump authorized a limited strike on Iran to retaliate for the downing, but suddenly reversed himself, he said on Friday morning, worried that potentially killing Iranians wouldn’t be a proportionate response.
....proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Put together, it’s a fraught, delicate, and dangerous situation that could spiral out of control if not carefully managed by both countries. Worries of a larger war are widespread, and it’s not clear how the US and Iran will walk back from the brink.
2) Why is all of this happening right now?
Over the years, Iranian-backed groups have fought and attacked US forces, leaving hundreds of American troops dead in total. The US has also launched assaults of its own, including a devastating cyberattack, a naval campaign to sink Iranian ships, and mistakenly downing an Iranian commercial airliner.
In other words, US-Iran relations have always teetered on a knife’s edge, and it takes just a little push to make an ever-present dilemma much worse. In this case, three recent “pushes” in particular sparked the current standoff.
First, the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year, reimposing sanctions on the country and compelling European allies to stop importing Iranian oil. That has started to tank Iran’s economy.
Second is how the intelligence and military actions have been perceived over the past few weeks. According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran may have feared an American attack was imminent and is taking action to dissuade the US from doing so.
That view would make sense, according to some Iran experts. “To counterattack in response to pressure is a standard part of the Iranian playbook,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, tweeted on May 6.
Misperception and miscalculation are always worrisome in situations like this. One wrong move by the US, for example, could lead Iran to think war is afoot, thereby compelling Tehran to make aggressive countermoves or even launch assaults of its own. The same is true if Tehran startles Washington with some action, leading the White House to authorize a strike.
Which takes us to the third “push”: the Iran hawks in the Trump administration who are itching for a fight.
John Bolton, Trump’s top national security aide, has long argued for regime change in Iran and advocated for bombing the country to stop it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also pushed the US to confront the Iranian regime.
In May 2018, he gave a speech outlining 12 ways the clerical government must change — including stopping its support for proxy groups and halting its missile program — before the US lifts any financial and diplomatic pressure off Tehran.
Together, they have made the Trump administration a lot more antagonistic toward the Islamic Republic. It’s a stark difference from when Trump was flanked by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While they both expressed deep distrust of Iran, they didn’t make maximalist demands or threaten conflict so brazenly.
It’s important to note that Trump says he doesn’t want a war with Iran, but the problem is that he’s effectively outsourced his Iran policy to the hawks. That means that at a time when cooler heads should prevail, there aren’t many cool heads to be found.
“Moments like these are when institutions should matter: leadership at the cabinet level, a serious policy-making process, intelligence standards, professional ethics. All those have been eroded by the Trump administration,” Maloney tweeted.
3) Wait, why do Bolton and Pompeo hate Iran so much?
It’s hard to find two more anti-Iran figures in Washington than the national security adviser and the secretary of state.
Let’s start with Bolton: The longtime Republican official and operative rarely has found an authoritarian regime he hasn’t wanted to punish in some way, but Iran seems to hold a special place in his heart.
In 2015, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times making the case that the US should bomb Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon. “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program,” Bolton wrote, slamming the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a diplomatic agreement with Tehran. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action ... can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”
And in 2017, just eight months before becoming Trump’s third national security adviser, Bolton gave a paid speech to an Iranian exile group that wants to overthrow the country’s leadership.
Clearly, he agrees with them: “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” he said. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
“Before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran,” he concluded. Well, it’s 2019 now, so perhaps Bolton hopes to make up for lost time.
Where Bolton’s animus seems driven by Cold War-era thinking, Pompeo’s seems to come from something much deeper.
The nation’s chief diplomat has made no secret of his evangelical Christian faith, which he admits guides his policy views. That holds true for world affairs, where his religious beliefs have partly led him to offer unqualified support for Israel, a key American ally — and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees Iran as an existential threat to his country.
During a March 20 visit to Jerusalem, for example, Pompeo and Netanyahu both vowed to continue their joint pressure on Iran. Five days later, the secretary gave a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to show his support for the US ally and disdain for Iran.
“We’ve enacted the strongest pressure campaign in history against Iran and its proxies, and they are feeling the pain,” Pompeo said to applause. He added: “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and any nation that espouses anti-Zionism, like Iran, must be confronted. We must defend the rightful homeland of the Jewish people.”
Pompeo, then, has expressly linked America’s combative stance against Iran to support for Israel. While he has also said Iran deserves pushback for its pursuit of a nuclear program and its support for terrorists and dictators like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, it’s clear Pompeo views Iran as a threat to a country important to his Christian faith.
Which means Bolton and Pompeo are unlikely to tamp down growing tensions with Iran. If anything, they will want to escalate matters now that they have the chance.
4) Are the US and Iran going to war?
Breathe easy: It doesn’t look like the US will go to war with Iran anytime soon, although that possibility can’t be fully counted out. But there are three main reasons for optimism (or just not outright pessimism).
First some experts say the US military deployments to the Middle East aren’t so out of the ordinary.
Sure, the US moved an anti-missile battery to the region last month, but it removed four of them months earlier, Ilan Goldenberg, an Iran expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, tweeted on May 11. He added that the aircraft carrier sent to the Middle East to deter an Iranian attack was previously scheduled to be in the region.
“So what is actually happening? Someone in the administration has decided to dramatically increase the media posture of the US government around these deployments to apply pressure on Iran,” Goldenberg continued. The reason for the exaggeration, though, is not entirely clear.
Second, Trump doesn’t seem to want a war with Iran. He campaigned on not getting the US further involved in wars abroad, particularly in the Middle East. While Trump is no dove on Iran and seems to relish the US-led pressure on it, he’s not aching for a fight like some around him. He reportedly told his acting Pentagon chief in May that he doesn’t want to get into a skirmish with Iran right now.
And when Trump was asked on May 16 if the US was going to war Iran, he simply responded: “Hope not.”
Reporter: "Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?"— MSNBC (@MSNBC) May 16, 2019
President Trump: "Hope not." pic.twitter.com/bdFeWHZr3M
Third, it actually seems like tensions may be fairly low in the grand scheme of things. For example, Pompeo is leaning on European allies to compel Iran to “de-escalate” the tensions, the New York Times reported in May. It’s unclear if he’s doing this under Trump’s orders or if he’s decided to tamp down his typical hawkish Iran policies for the time being.
However, the recent attacks on oil tankers, Iran’s statement that it won’t abide by a crucial part of the nuclear deal, and the downing of the drone means problems might mount in the days ahead.
Iran made a very big mistake!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2019
Still, the US-Iran standoff isn’t quite as dire as it seems and may settle down. That’s not guaranteed, of course, as there’s always room for error. But for now, it doesn’t look like the US and Iran are going to war.
5) If the US did decide to go to war with Iran, what would be the rationale?
Based on the Trump administration’s statements and past US policy, America might choose to go to war for three reasons: 1) Iran gets close to obtaining a nuclear weapon, 2) the US decides to overthrow the regime, or 3) Iran launches a massive attack on Americans requiring an even bigger response in return.
Let’s start with the nuclear issue. US policy in this and previous administrations is that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. That’s why President Barack Obama signed the Iran nuclear deal — to delay Tehran’s path to the bomb. Trump pulled out of the deal for a variety of reasons, but one was that he claimed it made Iran’s ability to get a nuke more likely, even though most experts disagree.
As of today, Iran is still far away from having a reliable nuclear arsenal at its disposal — and it has never officially said it is even seeking the bomb in the first place. But if it starts to move seriously in that direction, one could imagine folks like Bolton and Netanyahu pushing for a military strike on its nuclear facilities. As a sign of Israel’s seriousness on this issue, it has reportedly even killed nuclear scientists working for the Iranian regime.
But what would that actually accomplish in the long run? Would we be able to stop Iran from ever getting a bomb if it really wanted to?
“We can probably destroy the existing program” with limited strikes, Richard Nephew, an architect of the Iran nuclear deal, told me last month. But “we cannot prevent Iran from reconstituting that program. So we would then have to either attack again in the future to deal with a reconstituted nuclear program or acquiesce to Iran having a nuclear weapon.”
Attacking Iran, he added, could actually compel the country to pursue the bomb in earnest in order to deter more US strikes.
Okay, so what about starting a war to overthrow the regime? That’s even less likely to happen, as it would take a colossal military effort. Right now the administration is reportedly considering sending 6,000 more troops to the gulf region, far below what would be required to carry out a major war against Iran.
That’s a far cry from previous considerations. In May administration weighed one plan which included sending 120,000 US troops to the Middle East — a plan Trump denied was ever in the works. Colin Kahl, who oversaw the Pentagon’s Iran planning from 2009 to 2011, tweeted on May 13 that the US would only deploy that many service members if regime change was the goal, although he noted it’s still too small of a force for a full-scale invasion.
By comparison, the US sent around 150,000 troops in the initial phase of the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and Iran is a much bigger country than Iraq.
If the White House aims to remove Iran’s leadership permanently, then, it would need to launch an invasion on a scale even bigger than the one in Iraq — starting what would be one of the most horrific wars in recent memory and leading to hundreds of thousands dead.
It’s hard to imagine Trump would find much love for a full-scale war. “Almost nobody would support an Iraq-like ground invasion for regime change under current circumstances,” Eric Brewer, who worked on Iran in Trump’s National Security Council, told me last month. “It’s hard to over-emphasize how costly such a conflict would be.”
Finally, war could break out if Iran were to attack American forces. Iran’s military leadership does have its troops and proxies on high alert, but that doesn’t mean Tehran plans to imminently attack Americans.
The Islamic Republic is almost certainly aware that any action that puts US troops, diplomats, or private citizens in mortal danger will provide Trump advisers like Bolton or Pompeo with the ammunition needed to push harder for war.
The pressure will also be on Trump to respond in kind — if not more forcefully — if Iran kills Americans during this tense time. That pressure actually already exists, with some saying the attacks on two oil tankers last week requires a US military response.
That therefore incentivizes Tehran not to make overly provocative moves right now.
Luckily, then, none of these main pathways to war seem particularly open. And while it’s unlikely they will be, that’s not a certainty either.
6) What would a war with Iran look like?
That really comes down to what the US wants to accomplish, experts say. As noted above, war could take the form of targeted US military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, or it could look like a full-scale invasion of Iran by the US.
But it’s worth noting that there are lower-level ways the US and Iran could fight each other.
For example, the US could launch cyberattacks on Iran’s infrastructure and power grid, a plan the military has already named “Nitro Zeus.” The Obama administration used this method to bring down part of Iran’s nuclear program. However, Iran has cyber capabilities of its own that it could use to target important American companies or even the government.
What’s more, Iran’s proxies across the Middle East could target Americans in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere in the Middle East. Perhaps worried about that possibility, the US removed staff from two of its missions in Iraq last month.
Importantly, Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, so the worst attack imaginable is off the table. Still, it’s possible that Tehran could use its growing missile program to target American ships and troops in the area.
It therefore wouldn’t take a full-on fight for things to get really, really bad between the US and Iran pretty quickly. Let’s hope we don’t find out.
7) Does anyone outside the US want an Iran war?
Mainly no, but there are some out there who do.
Israel, which in the past has advocated for strikes on Iran, is actively trying to stay out of the fray. The main reason is that a major war with Tehran would certainly involve Israel, most likely pitting it against Hezbollah, Iran’s ally and proxy in Lebanon.
Axios reported in May that Netanyahu has told his top defense and intelligence leadership that his country should “make every effort not to get dragged into the escalation in the Gulf and would not interfere directly in the situation.” So Israel, along with the United Arab Emirates, has backed off its openly hawkish Iran stances so as not to spark a war right now.
Russia and European countries, especially those still party to the Iran nuclear deal, are also working as go-betweens to end the standoff. Experts also say that European nations worry greatly about millions of refugees streaming into the continent if a war with Iran breaks out, which would put immense pressure on governments already dealing with the fallout of the Syrian refugee crisis.
That’s bad news for Bolton and others who might want a full-on war with Iran. For the US to be successful, it will need political and military support from Israel and Europeans. Without them, the US would struggle to have the international legitimacy and help it needs not only to win the fight but also to deal with the immense fallout.
But the US does have some support for a fight. Most of it comes from Saudi Arabia, which has been locked in a decades-long cold war of sorts with Iran for control in the Middle East. Arab News, a Riyadh-aligned newspaper, called for the US to launch a “surgical strike” on Iran in May.
That said, Riyadh doesn’t seem to want a war right now. Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters last month that “the kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want war in the region and does not strive for that.” He added: “if the other side chooses war, the kingdom will fight this with all force and determination and it will defend itself, its citizens and its interests.”
Still, it seems that if the US decided to launch a war with Iran, it would mostly do so alone. That must surely give even those itching for a fight in the Trump administration some pause.
8) This feels like the runup to the Iraq War. Is it similar?
Not really, no. “There are valid concerns that some in the administration are casting intelligence in a certain light to further their goals of regime change, but I think there are more differences than similarities to Iraq,” says Brewer, who is now at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
In the runup to the Iraq War, George W. Bush’s administration made a clear and repeated case that Saddam Hussein, the country’s brutal dictator, had weapons of mass destruction. The problem is that it was based on cherry-picked intelligence that proved not to be credible, leading the US to launch a war based on faulty information and a misleading public pitch.
“There was a serious, coordinated effort by the Bush administration — via major speeches, interviews, etc. — to lay out its case for war. None of that appears to be happening now,” Brewer told me.
Still, there’s a good reason some compare the current Iran moment to the previous Iraq one. You have a Republican administration, featuring some of the same figures who pushed the US to war in Iraq (namely, Bolton), saying it has intelligence showing an imminent threat against Americans.
So let’s be clear about what we actually know — that is, what reports say the US has found:
- Iran had plans to target US troops in Iraq and Syria, and a top Iranian military leader told the nation’s proxies to prepare for war.
- Iran has placed missiles on ships that it could use to attack the US Navy, and could use drones against Americans in a key waterway near Yemen.
- The US military released video the US claims shows Iranians removing an unexploded limpet mine from the side of one of the oil tankers attacked last week.
Experts are mostly unanimous in believing that intelligence like this exists and is credible. Where they differ is on just how much it clearly shows a new level of Iranian aggression.
Phillip Smyth, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in May that major threats from Tehran’s proxies have continued since early 2018. “There have been maneuvers in the past that sent a signal to the Americans” of a worsening regional situation, he said.
But he noted that just because there are indications that an attack could happen doesn’t mean an Iranian proxy will launch one soon. “These guys are very smart and very patient with how they plan and execute,” he said.
Others, like Brookings’s Maloney, have said that people shouldn’t assume the intelligence is bogus, mainly because Iran would likely retaliate forcefully to the Trump administration’s antagonism.
What gives many pause, though, is that there seems to be a difference in what the US and its allies glean from the intelligence. For example, a top British military official involved in the coalition fight against ISIS in Iraq told Pentagon reporters last month that the threats weren’t extraordinary.
Meanwhile, senators from both parties in Congress have been briefed on the Iran intelligence — and both came away with completely different reads.
After a May briefing with National Security Adviser John Bolton on Monday, administration ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted, “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq. ... If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response.”
Meanwhile Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), an outspoken critic of Trump’s foreign policy and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also tweeted his take. “I‘m listening to Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the US and our allies. Like it just came out of nowhere,” he said. “I’ve read the intel too. And let me be clear: That’s not what the intel says.”
US defense and intelligence officials familiar with the information wouldn’t provide me with any more information than is already public.
But what makes all this different from the Iraq War is that both Congress and the press are refusing to take the administration’s claims at face value, and instead are pushing the Trump administration to back up those claims with actual proof.
9) Does the US-Iran standoff have anything to do with oil?
Pretty much anytime talk of America going to war in the Middle East comes up, people wonder if it’s merely a quest to control more oil. That’s fair to an extent, as the US and other world powers have launched wars to take charge of energy sources.
That’s not really the case here. What the US does care about, though, is ensuring that vessels are allowed to sail freely through the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial maritime passage aggressively patrolled by Iran where a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 percent of the world’s oil production flows. When US-Iran tensions spike, Iran typically threatens to shut down the strait.
Doing so would send the global energy market into a tailspin and cause a worldwide crisis.
But Iran doesn’t usually follow through with its bluster, surely aware of the fury it would face from the United States and others. So when news of the mystery attacks on oil tankers surfaced twice in two months, it raised worries that Tehran may have found a way to send a message.
“By signaling that this supply is not safe and can be disrupted, Tehran is letting the world know it has escalation options,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me last month.
But while the continued supply of cheap oil is definitely important to the US, it’s not really the reason some in the Trump administration are pushing for an Iran fight today. That really comes down to this: Bolton, Pompeo, and others want regime change in Iran, and are using intelligence that shows Tehran doing provocative things to advocate for a more combative stance.
But Trump is still the boss, and so far he’s expressed no real appetite for war with Iran. Which means that a major, bloody conflict remains an unlikely possibility — at least for now.
Listen to this
On this episode of Vox’s Worldly podcast, Zack Beauchamp and Alex Ward break down the past few weeks of worrying news about Iran.