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What's happening: Over the past two weeks, long-simmering tensions between Iran and the United States have nearly boiled over. The two nations had been engaged in back-and-forth tough talk and subtle adversarial moves for months. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, each day the news was filled with stories of escalation by one side or the other that brought the countries to the edge of military conflict.
The relationship between the U.S. and Iran has been at a tense stalemate since last year, when the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and began imposing sanctions. An attack on two oil tankers on June 13, which the U.S. has blamed on Iran, set off a sequence of retaliation that appears to have brought the nations to the brink of war. On Friday, President Trump said he called off a planned bombing of Iran shortly before it was set to launch.
A poll taken before the recent rise in tensions showed more than half of Americans expected war with Iran.
Why there's debate: Despite the recent escalation, there is reason to believe that war isn't a foregone conclusion. President Trump has said he doesn't want one, as have Iran’s leaders. Some believe new sanctions and threats of military action may induce Iran to go back to the bargaining table to negotiate a new treaty that would prevent it from building nuclear weapons.
But there are worries that the next aggressive move by either side could lead to a domino effect of escalation, leading to a war that neither nation wants.
Trump's critics fear his bold rhetoric and confrontational tactics, including pulling out of the nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama, have locked him into a position where taking steps to de-escalate the situation would make him look weak.
Some also believe that de-escalation is not the administration's goal at all. Skeptics say recent U.S. actions echo the spotty intelligence that was used to sell the invasion of Iraq and, earlier, involvement in the Vietnam War. Some have accused members of the administration of provoking the Iranians in order to manufacture an excuse for a war that many on the right have been wanting for years. National security adviser John Bolton has been publicly calling for an attack on Iran for more than a decade.
What's next: For now, the U.S. is using nonmilitary means, such as continued tough talk, stepped-up sanctions and a reported cyberattack, to put pressure on Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has traveled to the Middle East to meet with leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and consolidate regional support in the event of a military conflict.
The two sides may be stumbling into a war no one wants
"As tensions mount between the United States and Iran, American and Iranian leaders publicly insist they want to avoid war. Yet history is littered with accidents, misperceptions, miscalculations, hidden bureaucratic agendas and other factors that produced armed conflicts nobody seemed to want." — Colin H. Khal, Washington Post
The path to peace runs the risk of sparking a war
"The cruel reality is that it may well require more tension, perhaps even a U.S.-Iranian clash, to convince each side that the situation has become too dangerous to continue. But once direct conflict begins, it might be impossible to stop." — Aaron David Miller, USA Today
Members of the Trump administration are trying to incite a military conflict
"Throughout its history, America has attacked countries that did not threaten it. To carry out such wars, American leaders have contrived pretexts to justify American aggression. That’s what Donald Trump’s administration — and especially its national security adviser, John Bolton — is doing now with Iran." — Peter Beinart, Atlantic
De-escalation and compromise are possible if both sides pursue it
"Both sides need to look for ways to move back from the brink. … Once the temperature has cooled, they need to find a path to a renewed deal on nuclear restraint and lifting of sanctions. The problem with brinksmanship is that sometimes you slide over the brink." — Matthew Bunn, Defense One
Political hard-liners in both countries are pushing for war
"Polling has found that Americans have little appetite for war, but the hard hard-liners of the Trump administration — and Iran in reaction to their policies — may just take us there." — Wendy R. Sherman, Los Angeles Times
Congress could step in to limit Trump's ability to legally attack Iran
"Strong action by Congress will help tip the balance away from a policy of ever more war and toward one grounded in diplomacy and economic cooperation -- with force reserved as an instrument of last resort when there is a serious threat to the United States that can't be resolved through other means." — William D. Hartung, CNN
Tactical strikes, like the ones Trump used in Syria, could set off a chain reaction
"Some Americans speak blithely about 'surgical strikes,' and I fear that many Americans, including those in the White House, don’t get how badly these can go awry. … The conflict may start 'surgical,' but it’s unlikely to end that way." — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times