May 15, 2019

Why war with Iran is suddenly on the table

National security adviser John Bolton sitting behind President Trump. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fears are growing that bluster between the U.S. and Iran might explode into war.

The latest: The U.S. has evacuated non-essential personnel from its embassy in Iraq, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps warned "we are on the cusp of full-scale confrontation."

The big picture: The Trump administration has been glaring threateningly at Iran since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal a year ago, pursuing harsh sanctions and declaring that the pressure will only increase until Iran’s regime changes course, or collapses.

  • The situation has escalated rapidly over the past 10 days, with national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spreading the alarm about potential attacks from Iran and warning that the U.S. will respond to any provocations with immense force.
  • Trump is generally more wary of military action in the Middle East than his advisers, particularly Bolton. But he did warn that Iran will "suffer greatly" if “they do anything” provocative.

Timeline:

  • May 5: Bolton issues a statement referring to impending Iranian attacks and announces a U.S. aircraft carrier is en route to the region.
  • May 7: Pompeo makes an unscheduled trip to Iraq and issues warnings about Iran.
  • May 9: Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presents plans for 120,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to the Middle East in the event of an Iranian attack, per NYT.
  • May 10: The U.S. sends additional military hardware, including a warship, to the Middle East.
  • May 12: Two Saudi oil tankers are attacked near the Strait of Hormuz. An anonymous U.S. official later says an initial investigation points to Iran.
  • May 13: Pompeo diverts to Brussels to brief European leaders on the Iranian threat.
  • May 14: Armed drones strike two Saudi pumping stations. Houthi rebels operating in Yemen claim responsibility.
  • May 15: The U.S. orders a partial evacuation of its embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

U.S. allies have generally appeared skeptical of the American warnings.

  • The British deputy commander of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria denied yesterday that there was an “increased threat” from Iran — a remark that drew a rebuke from U.S. Central Command.
  • The EU’s top foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, urged “maximum restraint,” rather than Pompeo’s preferred “maximum pressure.”
  • Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to steer clear of any confrontation, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, said Tuesday that "we don't seek a war, and they don't either," adding that Tehran is also not interested in negotiations and insisting, “our resoluteness is more unwavering than theirs.”

The bottom line: The message from the Pentagon has been that the U.S. doesn’t want a war, but is ready to fight if necessary. Administration officials say privately that rhetoric doesn’t work with Iran, so a credible threat of force is needed. That hasn't tempered fears of a march to war.

Go deeper

The cost of going after Bloomberg

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Here's the growing dilemma for 2020 Democrats vying for a one-on-one showdown with frontrunner Bernie Sanders: Do they have the guts — and the money — to first stop Mike Bloomberg?

Why it matters: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren all must weigh the costs of punching Bloomberg where he looks most vulnerable: stop-and-frisk, charges of sexism, billionaire entitlement. The more zealous the attacks, the greater the risk he turns his campaign ATM against them.

How Trump’s economy stacks up

Source: "Presidents and US Economy", Trump figures through 2019 courtesy of Alan Blinder; Note: Data shows real GDP and Q1 growth in each term is attributed to the previous president; Chart: Axios Visuals

Average economic growth under President Trump has outpaced the growth under Barack Obama, but not all of his recent predecessors.

Why it matters: GDP is the most comprehensive economic scorecard — and something presidents, especially Trump, use as an example of success. And it's especially relevant since Trump is running for re-election on his economic record.

Coronavirus cases rise as 14 American evacuees infected

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's NHC; Note: China refers to mainland China and the Diamond Princess is the cruise ship offshore Yokohama, Japan. Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

14 Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive for the novel coronavirus before being flown in a "specialist containment" on a plane repatriating U.S. citizens back home, the U.S. government said early Monday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 1,770 people and infected almost 70,000 others. Most cases and all but five of the deaths have occurred in mainland China. Taiwan confirmed its first death on Sunday, per multiple reports, in a 61-year-old man with underlying health conditions. Health officials were investigating how he became ill.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 5 hours ago - Health