House votes to limit Trump’s authority to strike Iran

The New York Times reports:

The House voted Friday to curb President Trump’s ability to strike Iran militarily on Friday, adopting a bipartisan provision that would require the president to get Congress’s approval before authorizing military force against Tehran.

The 251-170 vote reflects lawmakers’ growing desire to take back long-ceded authority over matters of war and peace from the executive branch, a reclamation legislators contend has grown increasingly urgent amid escalating tensions with Iran. It also reflected a war weariness on both sides of the aisle after 17 years of conflict in the Middle East; 27 Republicans joined all but seven Democrats to approve it.

Last month, Mr. Trump led the United States to the brink of a retaliatory missile strike before abruptly reversing course minutes before launch. On Thursday, three Iranian boats briefly tried to block passage of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. [Continue reading…]

Illusions of sovereignty: As the UK retreats from the EU it will face increasing pressures from the U.S.

Patrick Wintour writes:

A chain of events has been triggered that is increasingly exposing the UK diplomatically and militarily in the Gulf.

The UK has put British shipping on maximum alert in the Gulf, just as the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is forced to admit that – due to successive defence cuts – the UK does not have the resources to defend British vessels.

Simultaneously, the UK is battling diplomatically to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive – a path the US rejects.

British officials insist there is no connection between freedom of navigation and the preservation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known. But the two issues are inextricably linked.

British officials weighed the implications for the nuclear deal before British marines seized Grace 1, an Iranian-owned oil tanker, off the strait of Gibraltar following a request from the US.

On one side of the ledger, the UK prides itself on upholding international law, including sanctions. The cargo was in breach of EU law because it was taking oil to Syria.

But on the other side of the ledger, capturing Grace 1 would have little practical impact on Syria since it can still import oil from Russia. Moreover, if the UK went ahead with the seizure, it would be locked into a long legal battle, while British shipping in the Gulf would be vulnerable to Iranian reprisals and damage.

The UK did not need another row with Iran just as the talks between Tehran, and the UK, France and Germany to rescue the nuclear deal reached their most sensitive stage.

Tehran had for weeks been gradually reducing its commitments under the deal, in a calibrated effort to force Europe to do more to challenge US policy.

Lord Howell, a former Conservative cabinet minister and chairman of the Lords international relations committee, asked his government on Thursday whether it “was such a good idea to raid the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar in the first place”. He said: “Obviously we want to stop oil getting to President Assad, although probably he can get all the oil he wants from Russia. Are we not supposed to be on the same side as the Iranians on the question of nuclear proliferation and control? Can we have a firm assurance that we did this not just at the say-so of the US?”

Lady Goldie, for the government, insisted the request to intercept the ship came from the government of Gibraltar, but Foreign Office officials in the past have indicated the biggest factor in play was pressure from the US.

Speaking on the BBC, Nathalie Tocci, the special adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, put the UK decision in a wider political context. “The UK is feeling its own fragility and a fear of isolation as it tries to cut off its membership from the EU. There’s a line connecting the Iran story and the UK ambassador to the US.” [Continue reading…]

How fake news could lead to real war

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write:

Who really bombed the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman three weeks ago? Was it Iran, as the Trump administration assured us? Or was it Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel—or some combination of the three?

Here’s a confession from two former senior government officials: For days after the attacks, we weren’t sure. Both of us believed in all sincerity there was a good chance these actions were part of a false flag operation, an effort by outsiders to trigger a war between the United States and Iran. Even the film of Iranians hauling in an unexploded limpet mine from near the side of tanker, we reasoned, might be a fabrication—deep fake footage just like the clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi staggering around drunkenly.

Perhaps you felt that way too. But for the two of us, with 30 years of government service and almost 20 more as think tankers between us, this was shocking. Yes, we are card-carrying members of the “Blob,” the all-too-conventionally minded Washington foreign policy establishment, but we weren’t sure whether to believe our government.

This was more than a little disconcerting. Imagine waking up one morning and catching yourself thinking that alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was making good sense, that perhaps the Sandy Hook shooting was faked or that the 9/11 attacks were really an inside job? Imagine what it might be like to be in the grip of a conspiracy theory, when you’ve spent your whole professional life being one of those policy mandarins who could smell a conspiracy theory a mile away?

And we weren’t alone. In conversations with former colleagues—ambassadors, undersecretaries and the like—we found that plenty of others also bought the notion that the tanker attacks were a false flag op. To these eminences, it seemed plausible the Saudis or others had staged the bombings. After all, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has practically been cheerleading for a conflict, and the idea that the Iranians would risk a U.S. attack seemed risible. It wasn’t obvious why Iran would court humiliation in a military showdown, or, for that matter, attack a Japanese tanker while the Japanese prime minister was visiting Tehran.

After conversations with other colleagues still in the government whom we trust and who attested that beyond a doubt, the Iranians were behind it, we came around to the official position. The narrative that Iran was, through the attacks, trying to prod other countries to pressure the U.S. to relax its sanctions makes sense—it is not far from the kind of stunts North Korea has pulled in the past.

But the whole unsettling episode opened our eyes to a deeply troubling reality: The current fake news epidemic isn’t just shaking up U.S. politics, it might end up causing a war, or just as consequentially, impeding a national response to a genuine threat. [Continue reading…]

What a U.S.-Iran war could look like

Alex Ward writes:

A deadly opening attack. Nearly untraceable, ruthless proxies spreading chaos on multiple continents. Costly miscalculations. And thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — killed in a conflict that would dwarf the war in Iraq.

Welcome to the US-Iran war, which has the potential to be one of the worst conflicts in history.

Washington and Tehran remain locked in a months-long standoff with no end in sight. The US has imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy over its support for terrorism and its growing missile program, among other things, after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal last year; Iran has fought back by violating parts of the nuclear agreement and downing an American military drone.

To hear President Donald Trump tell it, that last incident brought the US within 10 minutes of launching warplanes and dropping bombs on Iran. Had Trump gone through with the planned strike, it’s possible both nations would now be engaged in a much more violent, much bloodier struggle.

Importantly, both country’s leaders say they don’t want a war. But the possibility of one breaking out anyway shouldn’t be discounted, especially since an Iranian insult directed at Trump last month led him to threaten the Islamic Republic’s “obliteration” for an attack on “anything American.” In other words, Tehran doesn’t have to kill any US troops, diplomats, or citizens to warrant a military response — it just has to try. [Continue reading…]

For too long, the West has turned a blind eye to Russian atrocities

Natalie Nougayrède writes:

Putin is so good at exploiting our obsessions and weak spots: it’s a tactic he’s long perfected to deflect attention from his own record.

Clear the fog a bit, and what is there, really? Russia’s sense of its impunity – I mean big time, murderous, war criminal-style impunity. Think about this: at the end of this year, Russia – whether in its Soviet or post-Soviet incarnations – will have been at war almost continuously for four decades. From the one million civilians killed in the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89) to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who’ve perished at the receiving end of Russia’s and Assad’s war machine, the chain of impunity is long. See the list of Russian wars: Transnistria (1992), Abkhazia (1992-93), Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (since 2014), Syria (since 2015). Putin first came to power on the back of a war – in Chechnya – whose atrocities I saw firsthand as a reporter. There is a continuum between the deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools and populated areas by Russian aircraft in Syria and what happened in Chechnya. You cannot understand Putin’s regime, the man himself, his worldview, nor how he’s shaped Russian society, without having those connections in mind.

Just last week the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 downing of flight MH17 brought an interesting detail to the fore: one of the Russian men charged, Igor Girkin, a former military intelligence officer, had been personally involved in several of the wars listed above. In Chechnya, Girkin took part in mass atrocities, according to the Russian human rights organisation, Memorial.

We tend to look at contemporary Russia in a piecemeal way: one crisis after the other, as if these weren’t linked. Yet they are. For too long we in the west turned a blind eye, or thought some of these wars would remain local issues. We didn’t realise they would come to define Russia’s power structure and how it relates to the outside world. War crimes have gone unpunished for decades, because no one cared internationally or no one was able to do anything, and because Russia has no independent judiciary to speak of. [Continue reading…]

When would Bernie engage in war?

Bill Scher writes:

Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione, an anti-nuclear weapons activist who informally advises Sanders, told me: “I think Senator Sanders would not hesitate to use military force to defend the country from attack, to defend our vital interests, to prevent atrocities like genocide. But he’s made clear that military force should be the very, very last option.”

For a small but noticeable anti-Bernie strain on the far left, that wiggle room for military strikes makes Sanders a hypocrite. For example, Ajamu Baraka, the last vice presidential nominee for the Green Party, said in an interview that Sanders’ openness to military action amounts to “saying one thing publicly but then appearing to have a different position that is reflected sometimes in his legislative decisions, and I think the Kosovo situation was a very important example of that.”

But most of the anti-interventionist left aren’t quibbling about the smattering of past disagreements with Sanders such as Kosovo. They are mostly enthralled at how Sanders’ campaign rhetoric is broadening the foreign policy debate. In particular, they are bowled over by how, earlier this year, Sanders used the War Powers Resolution to move a bipartisan bill through Congress demanding Trump end American military involvement in the Yemeni civil war, where the U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention. Although the bill was vetoed, the fact that it got to Trump’s desk both legitimized the War Powers Resolution and bolstered Sanders’ case that he can get things done in Washington.

Most of the activists with whom I spoke put more emphasis on Yemen than Kosovo when gauging how a President Sanders would involve Congress in his foreign policy. Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, raved over email: “Sanders was the first to introduce a privileged resolution invoking the War Powers Resolution to force a vote to end unconstitutional U.S. participation in the war and lead it to completion, passage by Congress. That never happened before in the whole history of the War Powers Resolution since 1973.”

But Sanders’ proud defense of his Kosovo stance to his antiwar allies should not be ignored. He thundered at the May 1999 Montpelier town hall: “What do you do to a war criminal who has led, for the first time in modern history, the organized rape as an agent of war, of tens of thousands of women? What do you do to a butcher who has lined up people and shot them? Do you say to them, ‘You have won Mr. Milosevic. We are not going to stand up to you. We are going home’?” Sanders once put the end of genocide ahead of a strict adherence to the War Powers Resolution, and his foreign policy adviser [Matt Duss] has now left the door open to him doing it again as president. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s ignorance about history could get us into a war with Iran

Fred Kaplan writes:

One difference between the Cuban crisis of 1962 and the Iranian crisis of 2019 is that, in the former, the American president wanted to avoid war, had read some history on how past leaders got locked into war, and thought deeply about how he might avoid the same trap. It also turned out that Khrushchev, his adversary in that crisis, proved to be an eager partner in the quest for a way out; he knew, from the outset, that if the Americans saw him putting missiles in Cuba before they were up and ready to go, he would lose a confrontation.

By contrast, in the crisis with Iran, Trump seems clueless on how to go about avoiding war; at least two of his aides—national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—seem keen on turning up the pressure, and we have no idea what the Iranian leaders, or their various factions, want. [Continue reading…]

The Independent reports:

Donald Trump has said he “doesn’t care about the Europeans” when it comes to dealing with Iran as the feud between Washington and Tehran escalates.

The US president said he had called off an attack against Iran in response to the shooting down of an American drone because he “didn’t think it was proportionate”.

Yet Mr Trump also said the US military had identified Iranian targets for air strikes. “I have so many targets you wouldn’t believe … We have targets all over,” he told interviewer Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“I’m not looking for war and if there is, it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that.”

Mr Trump dismissed European leaders’ efforts to uphold the Iranian nuclear deal forged between world powers in 2015.

“I don’t care about the Europeans,” he said. “The Europeans are going out and making a lot of money … In France, they’re selling cars to Iran. They’re doing other things.” [Continue reading…]

Nicholas Kristof writes:

President Trump applied maximum pressure on North Korea, and it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons.

He applied maximum pressure on China, and we may be facing a trade war.

He applied maximum pressure on Venezuela, exacerbating hunger in the streets but leaving the dictatorship in place.

He applied maximum pressure on Palestinians, who responded by refusing to meet administration officials.

Most worrying of all, Trump applied maximum pressure on Iran, and we may now be on the brink of war.

In each of these cases, Trump pursued aggressive tactics without any obvious strategy. The tactics themselves often proved quite successful at inflicting misery, but this simply led several countries to double down on belligerence in ways that endanger the United States — and that is particularly true of Iran. [Continue reading…]

The art of resolving self-created crises

Jack Shafer writes:

Proving his excellence once again at serving as an arsonist and the leader of the fire brigade at the same time, President Donald Trump, who has been publicly spoiling for a military scrap with Iran, took credit this morning for both ordering a military strike on three of the country’s military installations and then canceling the mission 10 minutes before go time. Crisis averted!

This is far from the first time Trump has run this play. As David A. Graham of the Atlantic and others have noted, he delights in conjuring and intensifying crises—a lawless border, a national crime wave, threats of a government shutdown, threats of new tariffs, threats to oust the special counsel, the North Korea situation in which he promised “fire and fury,” et al.—and then riding in on a white golf cart at the last moment to head off the approaching calamity.

Trump’s usual shtick is to paper over the problem of his creation and then declare victory, but this week he added a biblical dimension to the drama-making. First, he assumed the persona of the vengeful god, commanding an attack on Iran in retaliation for its shoot-down of a $200 million Navy surveillance drone. Then he ducked into the wardrobe for a costume change to emerge in the cloak of the Prince of Peace and called off the strike. Why the 180-degree mood change? Because as he told Chuck Todd of NBC News, he learned it would kill 150 Iranians and he didn’t think the death toll was “proportionate” to the Iranian action. Or perhaps Trump just enjoys the sensation of changing his mind. Citing a source close to the president, the New York Times reported Friday that Trump “was pleased with Thursday night’s events because he liked the ‘command’ of approving the strike, but also the decisiveness of calling it off.” [Continue reading…]

How a drone’s flight took the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war

Julian Borger reports:

The incident that came close to sparking a new war in the Middle East began late on Wednesday night at the Al Dhafr air base in the United Arab Emirates, just over 30km south of Abu Dhabi.

The base is home to the UAE’s air force and a fluctuating number of US warplanes, including Global Hawk drones, used to fly high above the Persian Gulf looking down on the constant flow of oil tankers and northwards, sucking up huge quantities of data from Iran.

The Iranian government says that the Global Hawk which took off from Al Dhafr on Wednesday night was in “stealth mode”, meaning it had its transponder turned off.

The Pentagon has not commented on this, but the Global Hawk is not a stealthy plane. It is the size of a small commercial airliner and packed with electronic surveillance gadgetry costing $130m, considerably more than the new US F35 fighter. Its primary defence against being shot down is its speed and altitude. It can fly at 400mph at 55,000ft. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports:

The US military launched a cyber-attack on Iranian weapons systems on Thursday, according to sources, as President Donald Trump backed away from plans for a more conventional strike in response to Iran’s downing of a US surveillance drone.

The hack disabled Iranian computer systems that controlled its rocket and missile launchers, two officials told the Associated Press, and were conducted with approval from Trump. A third official confirmed the broad outlines of the strike. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the operation.

Two of the officials said the attacks, which specifically targeted computer systems of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), had been provided as options after two oil tankers were bombed. The IRGC has been designated a foreign terrorist group by the Trump administration. [Continue reading…]

Renewed doubts about Trump’s credibility at a time of military crisis

The Washington Post reports:

President Trump stepped away from the precipice of an immediate military conflict with Iran on Friday, calling off a strike in response to Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone.

But with the United States and Iran still locked in an adversarial pose, with none of their underlying grievances resolved, the prospect for fresh brinkmanship loomed as U.S. officials contemplated an alternative response.

Key Trump allies on Capitol Hill said Friday that they expected the president to order a “non-kinetic” measure, suggesting economic sanctions or some other nonmilitary punishment for Iran’s destroying the aircraft.

Meanwhile, Iran has accused the United States of committing “economic terrorism” by imposing rounds of sanctions that are strangling its economy — raising the prospects of more attacks on oil tankers or U.S. assets in the region.

The precariousness of the moment was compounded by widespread uncertainty about the president’s decision-making process, which he detailed Friday in tweets and statements that drew scrutiny from even his own aides.

Early in the day, the president said he called off the attack at the last minute because it would have killed 150 people in retaliation for the downing of the drone. “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die,” he tweeted.

But administration officials said Trump was told earlier Thursday how many casualties could occur if a strike on Iran were carried out and that he had given the green light that morning to prepare the operation.

The confusion reinforced concerns about the Trump administration’s credibility at a time of military crisis. [Continue reading…]