John Bolton has gotten away with a dangerous deception. The national security adviser's announcement Sunday that the Pentagon has deployed air and naval forces to the Middle East, which he combined with a threat to Iran, points to a new maneuver to prepare the ground for an incident that could justify a retaliatory attack against Iran.
Bolton presented his threat and the deployments as a response to alleged intelligence about a possible Iranian attack on U.S. targets in the Middle East. But what has emerged indicates that the alleged intelligence does not actually reflect any dramatic new information or analysis from the U.S. intelligence community. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of a highly political case concocted by Bolton.
Further underscoring the deceptive character of Bolton's maneuver is evidence that senior Israeli national security officials played a key role in creating the alleged intelligence rationale for the case.
The new initiative follows an audacious ruse carried out last fall by Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, detailed in Truthdig in February, to cast the firing of a few mortar rounds in the vicinity of the U.S. embassy and a consulate in Iraq as evidence of an effort by Tehran to harm U.S. diplomats. Bolton exploited that opportunity to press Pentagon officials to provide retaliatory military options, which they did, reluctantly.
Bolton and Pompeo thus established a policy that the Trump administration would hold Iran responsible for any incident involving forces supported by Iran that could be portrayed as an attack on either U.S. personnel or "interests."
Bolton's one-paragraph statement on Sunday considerably broadened that policy. It repeated the previously stated principle that the United States will respond to any alleged attack, whether by Iranian forces or by what the administration calls "proxy" forces. But it added yet another major point to Trump administration policy: "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 [emphasis added]."
That language represents an obvious move by Bolton to create potential options for U.S. retaliation against Iran for a real or alleged attack by "proxy forces" on Israeli or Saudi forces or "interests." Such a commitment to go to war with Iran over incidents related to Israeli or Saudi conflicts should be the subject of a major debate in the press and in Congress. Thus far, it has somehow escaped notice.
Significantly, on a flight to Finland on Sunday, Pompeo repeated the threat he made last September to respond to any attack by "proxy forces" on U.S. "interests." He made no reference to possible attacks against "allies."
Bolton and his staff claimed to the news media that what he characterizes as "troubling and escalatory indications and warnings" are based on "intelligence." Media reports about Bolton's claim suggest, however, that his dramatic warning is not based on either U.S. intelligence reporting or analysis.
Citing "U.S. officials," The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the alleged intelligence "showed that Iran drew up plans to target U.S. forces in Iraq and possibly Syria, to orchestrate attacks in the Bab el-Mandeb strait near Yemen through proxies and in the Personal Gulf with its own armed drones."
But in the very next paragraph, the report quotes an official saying it is "unclear whether the new intelligence indicated operations Tehran planned to carry out imminently or contingency preparations in the case U.S.-Iran tensions erupted into hostilities."
A Defense Department source said the intelligence showed "a change in behavior that could be interpreted to foreshadow an attack on American forces or interests," according to The New York Times story on the matter. But the source didn't actually say that any emerging intelligence had led to such a conclusion or even that any U.S. intelligence official has come to that conclusion.
The timing of the alleged new intelligence also suggests that Bolton's claim is false. "As recently as last week there were no obvious sign of a new threat," The Wall Street Journal reported. The New York Times similarly reported that "several Defense officials" said "as recently as last Friday they have had not seen reason to change the American military's posture in the region."
Normally, it would require intelligence from either a highly credible source within the Iranian government or an intercept of a sensitive communication from Iran to justify this kind of accusation. But no news outlet has brought word that any such spectacular new intelligence has found its way to the White House or the Pentagon.