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Iran tensions spotlight Trump's questionable credibility

Updated 8:45 AM ET, Thu May 16, 2019

Washington (CNN) - The Trump administration, which has disdained truth and consciously snubbed its allies, is now facing a tough burden of proof and history as it barrels toward a confrontation with Iran.

The White House is facing skepticism about its warnings and bombastic talk about Iranian activity after two years systematically building economic, diplomatic and, finally, military pressure on Tehran -- that was bound to trigger a response from its bitter foe.

President Donald Trump's pyrotechnic approach to the presidency has solidified his base but alienated half the country, a factor that would complicate his efforts to sell Americans on another war.

And Trump's incessant fight against fact and denials of obvious truth may also mean he has a credibility issue even if he comes before the nation to talk about what he sees as a credible threat.

There is also suspicion among American allies and domestic critics of Trump about the motives of key players on the White House team, uncertainty about the President's sometimes erratic instincts and wider disdain for his bulldozing foreign policy.

Alarm bells are ringing among Trump critics because the cranking up of tensions appears to be largely orchestrated by national security adviser John Bolton.

Bolton is on record before he joined the Trump administration calling for regime change in Iran and US bombing, and his new power is providing a troubling reminder for American allies of the run-up to war with Iraq.

Bolton was a hawkish member of the Bush administration that used now-discredited intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and hyped the threat from Saddam Hussein that led America and its allies into a quagmire in the Middle East.

Trump denied on Wednesday that there was any disagreement inside his administration about Iran policy and sought to show in a tweet that he was in control.

"Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision - it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered. I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon," Trump tweeted.

He appeared to be referring in part to a Washington Post story that suggested that the President was losing patience with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over their aggressive approach to Iran, which he fears runs counter to his reluctance to get embroiled in major conflicts like the Iraq War.

The White House, meanwhile, announced that Trump would meet Thursday with Swiss President Ueli Maurer. Switzerland acts as a diplomatic proxy for the US with Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations, and the meeting may be a sign that Trump wants to push for dialogue with Tehran -- however unlikely such a scenario appears to be.

Pompeo has been frenetically traveling to and from Europe, stiffening US rhetoric on Iran, though he insists Washington is not trying to provoke the Islamic Republic into war.

In another foreboding sign, the administration Wednesday pulled back non-emergency employees from its embassy in Iraq, warning of threats in a country where pro-Iranian militia operate.

Unnamed US officials have said Iran or Iran-backed forces are suspected of carrying out "sabotage" attacks on shipping off the United Arab Emirates including two Saudi tankers and a Norwegian flagged vessel. So far they have presented no evidence of Iranian involvement.

State Department officials said Tuesday the threat to US interests in Iraq was similar to what was seen at a previous time of tension with in 2011, including the possibility of barrel bombs, explosives targeting diplomats' homes and rockets targeting diplomatic compounds involving militia groups sponsored by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In a region as consumed by conflict, conspiracy theories and power struggles as the Middle East the fog of war is always thick. It could well be that Iran is deliberately testing the US in response to Washington's own escalation and that the administration is simply passing on and not exaggerating threats.

There is no argument among the US and its allies that Iran is often a nefarious influence. But the question is how to deal with it.

Divisions over the nature of the problem burst into the open Tuesday in an unusual show of transatlantic military discord. The British general serving as deputy commander of the US-led military coalition against ISIS said there had been "no increased threat" from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.

In an extraordinary statement issued hours later, a spokesman for US Central Command said Major General Chris Ghika's comments "run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region."

The rebuke came a day after British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was worried about a US-Iran conflict "happening by accident" on the back of suddenly rising tensions.

European foreign ministers did not offer Pompeo a group meeting during his sudden visit to Brussels this week, perhaps fearing a photo-op would be seen as an endorsement of the US approach.

And Spain decided to recall a frigate from a US armada that is now steaming towards the Persian Gulf.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a proponent of a robust US foreign policy, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that warnings of a rising Iran threat to US forces were sincere.

"That British general and I may have a different kind of interpretation of that threat or how severe that threat is," he said. "But I can only say that on the Senate Intelligence Committee, we've seen in recent days heightened reporting about potential threats to US personnel and our allies in the Middle East, and we take that very seriously."

The administration will attempt to convince less supportive lawmakers after offering a briefing for "Gang of Eight" congressional leaders on Thursday.

Logical consequence of events

In many ways, the Trump administration is now reaping what it has sown with a domestic approach that often challenges established fact and a foreign policy that has often gone out of its way to insult and demean allies while elevating US adversaries.

European Union states all but begged Trump not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration -- noting that US intelligence agencies assessed that Tehran was in compliance with the accord.

The rising tensions between Iran and the US might be seen as a logical consequence of events that flowed from Trump's decision -- that appeared more influenced by political than diplomatic motivations. The White House argued correctly that the international accord did not halt what Washington sees as destabilizing regional activity, including missile launches and support for extremist groups.

But its supporters say it put a decade-long lid on Iran's nuclear program -- the only way it can pose an existential threat to its enemies -- in return for a lifting of sanctions.

If the deal collapses completely and Iran decides to enrich uranium to weapons grade, Trump could face a decision on risky military action that could cause shock waves around the world and provoke full-scale war.

Alarm bells are ringing among Trump critics because the cranking up of tensions appears to be largely orchestrated by Bolton.

Bolton is on record before he joined the Trump administration calling for regime change in Iran and US bombing and his new power is providing a troubling reminder for American allies of the run-up to war with Iraq.

Bolton was a hawkish member of the Bush administration that used now discredited intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and hyped the threat from Saddam Hussein that led America and its allies into a quagmire in the Middle East.

Trump denied on Wednesday that there was any disagreement inside his administration about Iran policy and sought to show in a tweet that he was in control.

"Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision - it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered. I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."

The Iraq war's still potent influence on politics in Europe cannot be underestimated and might tie the hands of any allied US leader if asked to join a US coalition against Iran.

Trump's unpopularity in Europe and his disregard for its leaders and priorities -- including the nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord -- are also an impediment to his subordinates as he seeks to sell his Iran policy.

The Trump administration is yet to provide any public proof of its allegations about a rising Iran threat. And the drip, drip, drip of accusations against Iran by anonymous officials in the media is a reminder of the campaign for war with Iraq in the 2000s.

Democrats seek to exploit Iran fever

But concern about Bolton's influence on US policy is not confined to Europe. The veteran foreign policy bureaucrat's power is turning into a political issue for Trump's domestic opponents.

"John Bolton is telling him what to do. Bolton did the same with President George W. Bush and Iraq," said Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who is running for the Democratic nomination.

"As someone sent four times to that misguided war, I have seen the costs of Bolton's disastrous foreign policy in a way he never will -- firsthand, and at the loss of thousands of American lives," Moulton said in a statement.

One of the front-running Democratic 2020 hopefuls, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is also now mobilizing amid rising war fever.

"A lesson that we should have learned a long time ago is the unintended consequences of war. That is you think something is going to happen but the result is very, very different," Sanders said on AC360 on CNN on Tuesday night. "We should have learned the lesson of Iraq and apparently at least John Bolton has not."

The administration says its policy of massive economic pressure on Iran and a precautionary military build-up is not an overt attempt at regime change -- though officials would not object if Iranians rise up against the clerical regime.

But it is a policy rooted in a belief that Washington has the power and knowledge to shape events in the Middle East -- an idea that seems hardly credible given events in the last 15 years.

There is also the question of whether Bolton and Pompeo, who have been hawks on Iran for years, are forcing the President into a position which will leave him few strategic options.

There are not many restraining influences left in the foreign policy team, with the departure of generals who have known the human cost of war -- such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis who was no dove on Iran, but was also trusted by US allies.

An emerging political question is whether Trump -- who has been happy to fling bellicose rhetoric about Iran but has been wary of large-scale foreign military entanglements -- will get spooked by rising tensions and rein Bolton back in.


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