Middle East

They Said They Didn't Want War With Iran. Now They're Cheering on War With Iran.

Many of the Washington hawks calling for war with Iran had sworn up and down that more pressure was not a path to war.


Drop a frog into boiling water, and it jumps right out. But put the frog in lukewarm water that is being heated gradually, the legend goes, and you can boil the unsuspecting creature.

We are now in boiling water. After years of tension with Iran, war looks to be on the horizon. Iranian-backed militias have been clashing with U.S.-led forces across the region for the past several months. This weekend, the U.S. military stepped in directly to defend Israel from a direct Iranian missile attack for the first time ever.

Many of the hawks calling for war today used to swear up and down that they weren't seeking war. We just want a little bit more pressure on Iran, politicians insisted, and certainly wouldn't call for a full-on invasion. Boil the water slowly.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) has been one of the loudest voices in Congress calling for war over the past few months. In the wake of the October 2023 attacks on Israel, he called for bombing Iran even if there was no evidence that Iran was behind the attacks. After Iraqi militias killed three U.S. troops in December, the senator declared, "Hit Iran now. Hit them hard." Referring to an Iranian military headquarters, Graham urged President Joe Biden to "blow it off the map."

A few years ago, Graham was terribly offended by the idea that he would call for war with Iran. In 2015, when then-President Barack Obama said that a deal to halt Iran's nuclear program was the only alternative to war, Graham issued a joint statement with the late Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) attacking the "false choices" that Obama was presenting.

"No one believes that military force can and should solve all problems. No one believes that diplomacy, including diplomacy with adversaries, is tantamount to weakness," Graham and McCain stated. "The alternative to this deal was never war; it was greater pressure on Iran and insistence on a better agreement."

Commenting on Graham's attitude, Max Fischer noted in Vox that "Iran hawks can't be honest about what they really want" because "a repeat of what we did in Iraq…is not a politically palatable idea." At least not yet.

Graham got what he wanted; former President Donald Trump tore up the deal that Obama had made, began a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, and brought in Graham as an adviser. They never did get that "better agreement," but the United States did come close to bombing Iran several times, with Graham as a cheerleader for escalation.

Along with Graham, the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) was one of the most important actors advising Trump on Iran. FDD had a cozy relationship with the administration and even kept a member of Trump's National Security Council on its payroll.

Like Graham, the foundation's CEO Mark Dubowitz had insisted that his goal was to "fix not nix" diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear program.

"One thing we don't want to do is go to war with Iran, and we're trying to find peaceful ways to stop the Iranians and all the malign activities," Dubowitz said in a 2016 interview on C-SPAN.

Would it be surprising to hear that Dubowitz is now calling for war? On Monday, he mused that "it is time for friendly foreign powers to commit to a crushing preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program as well as giving Israel all the support it needs to destroy Tehran's terror armies." 

He made it clear on social media that "friendly foreign powers" means the United States: "It's geopolitical malpractice for the US to subcontract the destruction of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamanei's nuclear weapons program to Israel, a country of 10 million people. The Islamic Republic is one of our most dangerous enemies."

Dubowitz had also claimed in 2019 that he wasn't pursuing "regime change" in Iran because that would involve "mechanized US troops invading Iran like [in the] Iraq War." He then argued in 2022 that he had always been calling for "regime change" but only "through support for the Iranian people."

What do the Iranian people actually want? The Iranian opposition inside and outside the country is bitterly divided on whether Iran should be freed through foreign intervention.

But whenever the threat of war flares up, American media likes to give the hawkish faction a megaphone. One of the most prominent commentators is Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist who now works for Voice of America, the U.S. government-funded news outlet.

After Israel bombed the Iranian consulate in Syria earlier this month, killing seven Iranian military officers, Alinejad told CNN's Jake Tapper that "Iranians are celebrating" the attack.

Alinejad once denied that she supported this kind of campaign. On the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum in November 2022, she urged a journalist in Persian to ignore anti-interventionists "who tell you 'don't launch a military attack, don't close the embassies,' because no one is calling for a military attack."

Exactly one year later, at the next Halifax conference, Alinejad called for a military attack. "If Israel or any allied democratic country were to strike Iranian nuclear sites," she said in another Persian-language interview, "I would naturally welcome it. Not just me but the people of Iran, too."

Others in the Iranian opposition disagree. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who has been in and out of Iranian prison for the past decade, issued a statement on Monday condemning both Iranian and Israeli actions. "We don't want war by any name," she wrote.

Americans are no strangers to the anti-war to pro-war switcheroo. The Iraq War had unfolded in much the same way. In the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991, many American leaders insisted that regime change in Iraq would be going too far. A decade later, they insisted that regime change was the only way forward.

"I was not an enthusiast about getting U.S. forces and going into Iraq. We were there in the southern part of Iraq to the extent we needed to be there to defeat his forces and to get him out of Kuwait, but the idea of going into Baghdad, for example, or trying to topple the regime wasn't anything I was enthusiastic about," former defense secretary Dick Cheney said in a 1996 interview. "I felt there was a real danger here that you would get bogged down in a long drawn-out conflict, that this was a dangerous, difficult part of the world."

Just six years later, speaking as vice president, Cheney attacked the idea "that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true. Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region."

We've been boiled once. Will we get boiled again?