The president was upset. Watching TV in his White House residence, his usual morning routine, Donald Trump saw his intelligence chiefs kick the legs out from under yet another of his pet campaigns: Iran. Trump and two of his top national security officials had been suggesting for two years that the Islamic republic was still in pursuit of a nuclear weapon and posed a mortal threat to its neighbors and the West.
But now, Dan Coats, his national intelligence director, was in a Capitol Hill hearing room saying that wasn’t true: Iran was living up to the letter of the deal the U.S. under President Barack Obama and five other nations had negotiated with the Middle Eastern country to dismantle its nuclear program, Coats said. Not only that, added CIA Director Gina Haspel, but Iran could well decide to restart the program if the sanctions that Trump had just reimposed—breaking America’s end of the bargain—weren’t lifted.
Trump took to Twitter. Coats and Haspel were “wrong,” he posted on January 30. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” But he wasn’t through with Iran. In extraordinary remarks with CBS and The New York Times over the next few days, Trump called Tehran “the number one terrorist nation in the world.” He blamed the Islamic republic for “every single” problem he had inherited in the Middle East, a remarkable—and wholly unsupportable—assertion. He called his intelligence chiefs “extremely passive and naïve when it comes to the dangers of Iran.”
Trump then hinted at escalating covert activities against Iran or even a military confrontation. “I could tell you stories,” he told the Times, “of things that we were going to do to them as recently as a week ago.”
To many observers with long memories, Trump’s comments were an eerie replay of a pivotal moment 17 years earlier, when another Republican president, George W. Bush, labeled Iraq part of an “axis of evil” that was on the threshold of building a weapon that would end in an Iraqi “mushroom cloud” over America. The following year, in 2003, Bush dispatched nearly 200,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in search of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out not to exist. Neither did Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged connection with Al-Qaeda. What followed was a calamitous decade-long occupation that the U.S. and the entire Middle East are still struggling with.
Veteran Middle East hands worry Trump is steering America into yet another misguided regional disaster, this time with Iran. A longtime former top CIA operations officer compared Trump’s misrepresentations about Iran to the lies a succession of presidents told to justify the war in Vietnam. “I don’t want to overblow the Vietnam analogies, but we’re in the process, from what I can see, of lying to ourselves and the American people about Iran,” he tells Newsweek, speaking on terms of anonymity because he retains close ties to the agency. “It’s not gonna attack us tomorrow. It’s not gonna kill us tomorrow. It’s not interested in direct confrontation with the U.S., despite the war of words.”