As Iran and the United States face off in the Gulf of Oman, the risk may not be just at sea, but in Tehran and Washington, where both Iranian and American hard-liners are seizing on the moment for political advantage.
The attacks this week on two tankers in the gulf, instantly attributed to Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then President Trump, emboldens the hard-liners in both countries, each able to argue their longtime adversary is itching for war.
In the White House, Mr. Pompeo and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, were driving a policy of maximum pressure — despite periodic signs of reluctance from President Trump.
For more than a year, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps pushed for Tehran’s leadership to abandon the restrictions of a nuclear agreement President Trump had already exited. They were drowned out by moderates, who argued that it was better to deepen the divide between the Trump administration and Europe on the future of the 2015 deal.
But once Washington ratcheted up the pressure by targeting oil and the Revolutionary Guards’ own revenues, even Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, who negotiated the nuclear accord and urged continuing to abide by the terms, began complaining of American “economic terrorism.”
“It is sort of a toxic interaction between hard-liners on both sides because for domestic political reasons they each want greater tension,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official. [Continue reading…]
If the administration’s assumption was that its “maximum pressure” campaign would force Iranian capitulation at no cost to the United States or its allies, that assumption is proving mistaken. And as both sides disavow any desire for war, both sides keep escalating.
Yet speaking to reporters last Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo characterized the tanker attacks—which hit four tankers near the Emirati port of Fujairah in May and a further two in the Gulf of Oman last week—as a response to the administration’s successful sanctions strategy. The sanctions campaign has succeeded at hurting the Iranian economy, yet it has so far failed to bring Iran to the table to discuss Washington’s demands, among which are a cessation of exactly the kind of destabilizing regional activity the administration has attributed to Iran in the past few weeks.
And Iran has more room to escalate. On the diplomatic front, Iran has threatened only reversible moves so far—first, in May, putting the Europeans on 60 days’ notice that it would quadruple its rate of uranium enrichment unless the deal’s other signatories could provide it with economic relief. This month, international inspectors announced that Iran was indeed ramping up nuclear-fuel production. Yet this was a modest step relative to others it could have taken, such as fully abandoning the deal, and clearly aimed at bargaining—what one senior administration official characterized on background recently as “fairly clumsy attempts at nuclear extortion.”
Meanwhile, the Europeans have been scrambling to find a way to preserve the deal—including by trying to construct a mechanism to do business with Iran despite U.S. sanctions. The mechanism hasn’t had much success so far (and the U.S. has threatened penalties against it). And so Iran ramped up the pressure further on Monday, saying it would breach the deal’s limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium within 10 days absent economic incentives. Even then, though, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly called on France, one of the deal’s European signatories, “to save the deal in this very short period of time.” [Continue reading…]