The Atlantic

How to Navigate the Fog of War on Iran

The question of how to read U.S. intelligence on Iranian threats—and how to respond to them—is at the center of a debate over military escalation.
Source: Khalid Mohammed / AP

When Barbara Leaf was a senior U.S. diplomat in Basra, in southern Iraq, Iranian-supplied bombs often rained down on her compound and harassed her convoys. “I was on the receiving end of mortars, EFPs, IEDs,” she told me, using acronyms for the deadly weapons that were familiar to any American serving in the country.

Leaf was in Basra in 2010 and 2011, when American troops regularly battled Iran-backed militias. She oversaw the establishment of the U.S. consulate in the city—which Donald Trump’s administration evacuated this fall, citing threats from the same Iran-backed militias, before partially evacuating the consulate in Erbil and the embassy in Baghdad last month.

Leaf sees those evacuations as an overreaction. She recently retired after three years as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, another post that involved managing the sort of Iranian threats the Trump administration is now spotlighting. Among other accusations, it blames Iran for May attacks against four UAE oil tankers; National Security Adviser John Bolton has said he will present evidence of this to the United Nations soon. “I am not privy to the intelligence now, but I was privy to it a year ago, and this is the kind of stuff you see periodically,” Leaf said.

Anyone who has spent the past month on edge about a potential military escalation between the

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