How Trump’s lies could lead to ‘catastrophic war’ with Iran, according to national security experts

Nobody seems to know why the president called off a retaliatory strike on Iran, or why he continues making false claims about the country's nuclear deal

Chris Riotta
New York
Friday 21 June 2019 20:00 BST
Donald Trump tight lipped on response to Iran

The morning after Donald Trump called off a retaliatory strike on Iran for shooting down an unmanned US drone, rumours circulated claiming the president was watching Fox News’ Tucker Carlson when he abruptly made the decision to stop the military action in its tracks.

Those unverified claims turned out to be false — Mr Carlson’s show began at 8pm, shortly after the president halted the strike — but the fact that they were believed by so many who shared them across social media spoke to an issue increasingly concerning US officials.

Multiple nuclear and national security experts told The Independent the day after Mr Trump called off the strikes that, while the president may have temporarily eased tensions with Iran, his misleading information about the country’s nuclear deal is “misguided,” “counterproductive” and could lead to broader international conflict.

The president has frequently received information that “is not fact based” and “has no resemblance to what is actually happening in the world,” in a pattern that “has led to both unsteady and unreliable actions … to the detriment of American security,” according to Jon Wolfsthal, former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under Barack Obama.

The former official said Mr Trump has denied the facts about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement reached in 2015 commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, which ended sanctions against the country in exchange for restrictions towards its nuclear programme.

“The president continues to lie about what the [Iran Nuclear Deal] did and how the US engaged Iran under President Obama,” Mr Wolfsthal told The Independent on Friday. “It is clear he does not understand what the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action did, does or what he wants to achieve with respect to Iran. In fact, it is not clear to any one what American goals are for Iran under President Trump.”

Mr Trump unleashed a series of angry tweets on Friday morning, describing the nuclear deal as “desperate” and “terrible” while claiming his predecessor’s administration gave Iran “150 Billion Dollars [£118bn] plus 1.8 Billion Dollars [£1.4bn] in CASH!”

“On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters,” he continued. “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Officials immediately disputed the president’s misleading claims, including Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor and member of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, who said “it’s crucial to turn down the temperature to avoid a catastrophic war that neither side appears to want.”

“All of these false or misleading statements have been gone through at some length when Trump first pulled out of the Iran deal,” Mr Bunn told The Independent. “The United States did not ‘give’ Iran any money. Instead, Iranian assets that had been frozen as part of sanctions were released — it was money that belonged to the Iranians. And when all was said and done it was much less than $150bn (£118bn).”

Despite many officials refuting the president’s claims surrounding the nuclear deal, several who spoke to The Independent said it remains unclear whether or not he was right about the US drone being taken down over international waters, rather than in Iranian air space, as the country has suggested.

“I take the US military at their word that this drone did not enter Iranian air space and was shot down in international waters,” Mr Wolfsthal said. “I would not be surprised to learn, however, that other US surveillance assets have penetrated Iranian airspace or that Iran does not have all of the equipment needed to keep accurate track of its airspace.”

Mr Trump appeared to walk back threats of an aggressive military response on Thursday when he suggested a “loose and stupid” Iranian officer may have attacked the drone, adding “it would have made a big, big difference” if the drone had been manned.

The theory that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was not involved in ordering the drone strike was supported in part by Mr Bunn, who said “with tensions this high, things can happen that neither leader directed.”

Martin Malin, a nonproliferation expert and executive director of the project on managing the atom at the Belfer Centre, told The Independent “the president exercised healthy caution in reversing the order to attack Iran.”

“Diplomats on both sides are looking for a way out of the crisis,” he added. “The focus ought to be on deescalating tensions in the Persian Gulf region, which will inevitably require having not only Iran at the table, but also Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

“The Trump administration has the leverage to bring about regional discussions that could end the crisis, ensure that the Gulf remains open to shipping, and open the way to broader confidence building in the region,” he added.”

Early Friday morning, Hesameddin Ashena, a top adviser to the Iranian president, tweeted a statement calling sanctions on Iran “economic terrorism.” He said the country would respond to sanctions threatened after the US drone strike “by all means necessary,” before describing the conflict as “reversible.”

“Every tangible constructive step will be met in kind,” he said.

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Mr Trump has not laid out a plan to address the burgeoning conflict with Iran, nor has he hinted at what potential military action could occur if the country were to continue targeting US assets.

If Americans and their allies continue to lack confidence in the president’s assessment of international developments, experts said the result could lead to increased distrust in the administration’s response to conflicts like the one that occurred this week.

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