On Friday, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, leading to an eruption of concern from the security community. The Trump White House, however, has this week focused its belligerence less on Pyongyang and the weapons it has, and more on Iran, despite the nuclear weapons it is prevented from getting. Last week, Secretary of State Tillerson pleasantly surprised his critics by certifying that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 deal that iced its nuclear ambitions and subjected it to intense inspections and restrictions for the next decade and more. This week, his boss fired back: “I would be surprised if they were in compliance” at the next review in 90 days, President Trump told The Wall Street Journal.
This has less to do with Iran and more to do with Trump’s frustration with his own Cabinet for supporting the deal — reportedly so great that he commissioned a parallel working group of lower-level, less-experienced officials to advise him before the next review.
So the threat of a major conflict with Iran is high — because the administration wants it that way. Most if not all of the administration’s key national security players, and their allies in Congress, see stepped-up U.S. military activity in the region as important to confronting Iran. Far from believing that the Iran deal contained the most serious U.S.-Iran flashpoint, they believe Iran, even without nuclear weapons, poses an existential threat to the U.S. and our allies. They believe that regime change — switching out Iran’s theocracy for a (hypothetical) secular democracy — is the only way, long-term, to deal with that threat. (Hands up if you recall hearing that one before about a country beginning with I.)