During the Obama administration, it looked like the United States and Iran were making progress towards more normal relations. The culmination of this was the historic nuclear deal. When Trump was elected president, he quickly backed out of the deal—although he presumably neither understood the deal nor cared what was in it. While it would be odd to attribute an actual planned foreign policy doctrine to Trump (other than “make money for Trump”), his administration took an aggressive stance towards Iran—and this became increasingly so as old-school hardliners and hawks, such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Recently tensions have flared with accusations that Iran attacked ships with mines and shot down an American drone. As it now stands, the United States claims that Iran attacked the ships and shot down the drone in international waters. Iran claims they did not attack the shops and while acknowledging they shot down the drone they claim it was over their territory.
Laying aside political and nationalistic biases, both the United States and Iran have credibility issues. While Iran is not known for its honesty, Trump and the Trump administration have no credibility; lying is simply the nature of this administration. As such, the matter cannot be settled by an appeal to credibility—although, sadly, Iran seems to be less inclined to relentless lying than Trump.
The United States also has a history of creating incidents and lying in order to “justify” going to war. The misrepresented Gulf of Tonkin incident was used by Johnson (a Democrat) to justify open warfare against North Vietnam and Bush (a Republican) got the United States to invade Iraq with lies about weapons of mass destruction. While past deceptions do not prove that there must be a present deception, they do provide grounds for suspicion: what has been done before certainly can be done again. From a critical thinking standpoint, it is reasonable to doubt both the United States and Iran in this matter and suspend judgment. There is also the question of whether the United States should attack Iran.
The hawks of the Trump administration apparently persuaded Trump to launch a strike on Iran; then Trump claims to have changed his mind when he learned of the likely number of casualties. This seems to indicate an odd split in the Trump administration. On the one hand, Trump has advisors who have long favored regime change in Iran and tend to favor a more militaristic foreign policy. On the other hand, Trump, perhaps because of his experience avoiding serving in Vietnam, has presented himself as reluctant to get America involved in another war. Unfortunately, Trump does not seem to have any meaningful doctrine to define a policy of when to use force—he seems to, as with other things, act on impulse or in accord with the last thing he heard. But if Trump does have a general policy of being reluctant to start a war, then that is certainly a laudable policy—especially considering recent wars.
While Iran consistently acts in ways contrary to the interests of the ruling class of the United States, a war seems like a terrible idea. While Iran is not identical to Iraq, the Iraq war provides an excellent cautionary tale. There is no doubt that the United States could defeat Iran and do so with impunity. The problem lies in the aftermath—as Iraq showed. While Iran is seen as a “bad actor”, it is a stable and functional state—something that should not be destroyed lightly. If the United States removes the existing ruling class, it is not clear that we would be able to build a functional government in the new Iran—even if we airdropped billions upon billions of dollars onto the country. While Iran might not end up like Iraq, it might follow the Syrian model and plunge into chaos and war. While it could be argued that a wrecked Iran would be good for the United States, it seems even more likely that this would be worse for the United States—and certainly worse for the region and the Iranian people.
While we should have no illusions about Iran, it is also important to not have delusions about Iran. It is preferable to try to work things out with diplomacy—as the Obama administration tried. This requires, obviously enough, sticking to the deals we make—or at least only breaking them for excellent reasons, rather than from petty impulses.