Are We Going To War With Iran? An Explainer

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Today, the White House notified Congress that they’ll be sending at least 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East in order to address rising tensions with Iran. President Donald Trump said that the troops would have a “mostly protective” role, according to the Associated Press.

AP obtained a copy of the order, which states the troops will be deployed in the coming weeks, and “their primary responsibilities and activities [will be] defensive in nature.”

Though relations between the U.S. and Iran have been degrading since Trump took office in 2017, the move has many concerned that this is just the first step to starting a full-blown war with the Middle Eastern country. So what’s going on, exactly? Are we going to war with Iran? We break it down.

What happened today? Why?

In early May, the Pentagon told the White House that Iran “had given a green light to its proxies in the region to go after U.S. targets.” (For context: Iran is well-known for training and using a “network of armed militias” who aren’t officially tied to the country in order to carry out military attacks and other strategic missions.)

With that information, the White House threatened Iran with more sanctions and partially evacuated American diplomats in the region, and the Pentagon asked for more support in the Middle East to counter Iran’s reported aggression.

Fast forward to today: Trump has given the green light to deploy more troops and weapons to the tune of “approximately” 1,500 troops. This is far fewer than the 10,000 troops the Pentagon initially asked for, according to the AP.

According to CNN, “The new deployment includes Patriot missile batteries, reconnaissance aircraft and accompanying necessary forces to provide further deterrence against what the Pentagon believes is a rising Iranian threat against US troops in the region.”

What does this have to do with our previous relationship with Iran?

The U.S. has a long and complicated history with Iran dating back roughly seventy years, largely dominated by the American attempt to control access to oil reserves and nuclear weapon proliferation in the Middle East — chiefly by relying on economic sanctions that would choke countries that didn’t play ball.

Here’s the 30,000 foot up version:

  • 1953, the CIA helps overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq because he wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. They instead install shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, an anti-Communist monarch.
  • 1968: Iran signs nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
  • 1975: U.S. shares nuclear technology with Iran.
  • 1979: The Iranian Revolution sees the ousting of the U.S.-backed shah and installation of Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who created the theocracy that is still in place today.
  • U.S. diplomats are taken hostage later that same year, and then-President Jimmy Carter bans Iranian oil (an emergency order which is still in effect today).
  • 1981: Hostages are released.
  • 1986: The U.S. discovers that the Reagan administration has been secretly selling arms to Iran and funneling that money to anti-communist paramilitary troops in Nicaragua (Iran-Contra).
  • 1987: Iran meets in secret with Pakistani nuclear scientist and starts developing a nuclear weapons program.
  • 1987-8: The U.S. gets involved in a war between Iran an Iraq, almost completely destroying the Iranian navy, and later shoots down an Iranian passenger plane, killing almost 300.
  • 1991: First Gulf War starts, U.S. refuses Iran’s offer to mediate.
  • 1995: Iran and Russia sign a nuclear deal.
  • 1996: President Bill Clinton signs new sanctions against Iran.
  • 2002: Discovery of Iranian nuclear facilities.
  • 2002: President George W. Bush calls Iran a part of the “axis of evil” (along with North Korea and Iraq) in a now-infamous speech.
  • 2004: Iran appears to have halted work on nuclear programs.
  • 2006: Iran starts up nuclear programs again, and U.S. develops “cyberwarfare” program to stop them.
  • U.N. sanctions against Iran, courtesy of the Security Council.

From 2006 on, U.S.-Iran history has been a whiplash back-and-forth of sanctions, cyber programs destroying parts of Iran’s nuclear reactors, hostage-taking, and tension. Which brings us to the 2015 Nuclear Deal between the Iranian government and the Obama administration. Along with Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany (also known as the P5+1), the U.S. struck a strict deal with Iran that would do the following:

  • Limit uranium enrichment.
  • Limit number of centrifuges.
  • Limit plutonium enrichment.
  • Allow the International Atomic Energy Agency “full and unrestricted access” to nuclear facilities.

In exchange, Iran received serious economic relief. Not only did the P5+1 agree to unfreeze $100 billion in assets that were frozen due to international sanctions, Iran is now free to sell its oil on the international market, and the U.S. agreed to lift sanctions that not only punished Iran but anyone who did business with (namely: bought oil from) Iran.

Whether or not it has worked depends on who you ask, and there was an additional conflict in 2016 when Iran captured 10 American sailors when they accidentally entered Iranian waters, which has not helped relations.

After openly and frequently criticizing the accord, calling it a bum deal among other things, Trump withdrew from the accord in May 2018. Relations between the U.S. and Iran have quickly devolved, returning to the whiplash threat of sanctions and increasing tensions of yesteryear, including recently announced sanctions meant to hurt Iran’s metal export business, their second-largest money-maker after oil.

Does this mean we’re going to war?

The short answer: no. This deployment isn’t a declaration of war. On Monday, May 20, Trump told reporters, “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.”

That said, this roll-out does have eerie similarities to the lead-up to the Iraq War, which technically ended in 2011 but is still essentially ongoing, with thousands of American soldiers still on the ground. The Pentagon has plans to send upwards of 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran “attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons” according to the New York Times. It’s also pertinent to keep in mind that then-President Bush lied (or it was a shocking failure of intel) to the American people about the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq to justify an invasion, so take anything the Pentagon says about Iran with a grain of salt.

This plan, which was reportedly led by Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, would mean that almost as many troops as were in Iraq at the height of the Iraq War would be deployed, though the plan does not call for a land invasion.

What’s next?

We don’t know yet. As of yesterday, Pentagon officials were wholesale denying the existence of these plans, so who is to say what will happen tomorrow or the next day? Reuters reports that this decision could easily escalate, especially as Trump administration members Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have openly hostile relations with the Iranian government. For what it’s worth, several politicians, including presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders, have come forward and announced they’d put a stop to any escalation and prevent yet another war.