(Written by David E. Sanger and David D. Kirkpatrick)
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 US hard-liners are seizing on the moment for political advantage.
The attacks last week on two tankers in the gulf, instantly attributed to Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then President Donald Trump, emboldens the hard-liners in both countries, each able to argue their longtime adversary is itching for war.
In the White House, Pompeo and the national security adviser, John Bolton, were driving a policy of maximum pressure — despite periodic signs of reluctance from Trump.
For more than a year, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard pushed for Tehran’s leadership to abandon the restrictions of a nuclear agreement Trump had already exited. The Guard was 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 Guard’s 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 US “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, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official.
“They have an incentive to create that tension, at the very least, because it will help them with their domestic politics and you can see that on both sides,” he added.
In Iran, tension with the United States bolsters the appeal of hard-line politicians aligned with The Revolutionary Guard in next year’s parliamentary elections.
In Washington, it strengthens the hand of hawks in the administration who may be trying to urge Trump toward more forceful action while weakening the claims of his critics — including most Democrats — who argue that President Barack Obama’s outreach to Tehran had been working.
On Friday, Bolton met for three hours at the White House with the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the tanker attacks and a proposal the Pentagon is weighing to send as many as 6,000 additional troops to the Gulf region, including warships and fighter jets.
The question now is whether escalation prevails, or whether the instinct to back away from direct confrontation — by Trump and those in Iran who see some kind of accommodation with the West as the only way out of the country’s isolation — kicks in.
It is hardly guaranteed, but it has happened before.
The two countries were closer to conflict a decade ago that was publicly apparent at the time. During the Bush and Obama administrations, Israel was repeatedly talked down from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. If retaliation followed, that would almost certainly have sucked in US military forces.
Both conducted complex cyberattacks on the Iranian facilities to buy some time and Obama began negotiations behind the backs of the Israelis and the Saudis. He ultimately reached the deal Trump denounced as one of the worst in history.
But the national security team that dominated Trump’s first 15 months in office — the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster; the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson; and the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis — were unanimous in the view that the president should expand the deal, rather than reject it.
As soon as Tillerson and McMaster were forced out, Trump withdrew from the deal, and their successors devised a sanctions regime that Pompeo described as meant to bring Iran’s oil revenue “to zero.”
For a year, Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani seemed to hold Iran’s hard-line factions at bay. They asserted that it was better to stay within the limits of the nuclear accord — even if the United States was in violation of its own commitments to suspend sanctions — than to incite a crisis.
The Europeans appeared to side with Iran, declaring publicly that Trump was making a huge mistake by abandoning an agreement that, at least for the next dozen years or so, would keep Iran from producing the fuel for a nuclear weapon.
In an interview in New York in late April, Zarif said he was fighting a back-channel bureaucratic struggle in Iran to preserve the agreement “every day.” He ended with a suggestion for the Trump administration: Rather than look for new ways to maximize pain, try “showing some respect.”
Last month, it became clear that Rouhani and Zarif, often denounced at home for being too cozy with the United States, were losing that internal argument.
Under pressure to explain why a deal that he promised would help lift economic sanctions had only resulted in even harsher ones, Rouhani announced that Iran would begin to edge out of the nuclear restrictions, loosening different elements of them every 60 days unless the Europeans found a way to make up for the US-imposed penalties.
While a slow move rather than a drastic one, it also signalled a new moment of confrontation between Iran and the West and a moment for The Revolutionary Guard — designated as a terrorist organization by Pompeo over the objections of the Pentagon — to flex its muscles.
“Does the Iranian government want this sort of stuff now? No,” said Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia with deep experience in the region. But The Guard, which profits greatly from black-market trade that thrives in times of sanctions and sees a chance to embarrass Rouhani, “might have an incentive to keep people rattled.”
The turning point for The Guard, Iran experts say, began in April when the Trump administration imposed new economic sanctions intended to try to choke off Iran’s ability to sell oil anywhere in the world.
“The rhetoric in Iran clearly heated up. Almost everyone is saying this is ‘full-scale economic warfare,’” said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “The question mark for the rest of was, would the response to ‘economic warfare’ be actual warfare?”
That also seemed to be the question for Trump, who loves sabre-rattling but often hesitates when he senses his more hawkish advisers are driving him toward the conflict in a region of the world where he has promised to bring US troops home.
In May, when headlines suggested that the two nations were hurtling toward an inevitable clash, Trump signalled that it was time to rein in those aides.
“I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Trump said about Bolton. “I’m the one that tempers him. That’s OK. I have different sides. I have John Bolton and other people that are a little more dovish than him. I like John.”
The Iranians appeared to have been watching.
“There was a general calming of the tension,” Ansari said. “The mood music changed when the president started saying we are not after war.”
But there was no real dialogue unless Trump has begun secret back-channel conversations through Oman or another party, much as Obama did nearly seven years ago.
Ansari contended that the problem on the US side was “a lack of coherence.” Pompeo, he noted, gave a speech in 2018 citing 12 major changes Iran must make before it can deal with the United States, only to say in recent days that there were “no preconditions” to talks.
“There does not seem to be any plan,” Ansari said.
Sanam Vakil, a researcher at Chatham House who studies Iran, argued that the messaging from Washington had only fueled the debate in Tehran over whether Trump or his advisers were hiding their true goal: to topple the Iranian government.
In recent weeks, Trump and Pompeo have denied that, saying they want changed behaviour, not changed leadership. The debate in Iran now, she said, was about whether to play for time and “bet on a change in 2020,” in the US elections.
The conflicting incentives of the US-allied Persian Gulf monarchs only add to the complexity.
The hawkish rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have a vested interest in Washington’s tensions with Tehran: The shared enmity holds together the US alliance with the Arab Gulf rulers.
And a surge in those tensions may be especially useful to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as he tries to move past a backlash in Washington over the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post.
“The Saudis know there is nothing like a whiff of grapeshot to keep the Americans engaged,” Shapiro said.
In his first public comments about the episode, the crown prince told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday that Saudi Arabia “does not want war” but “will not hesitate to deal with any threat.”
The prince accused Iran of carrying out the attacks on the tankers Thursday as well as other “hostile acts in the region” that “spread chaos and destruction.”
Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long battled with Iran indirectly through surrogates in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Now the two Arab monarchies are fighting directly against Iranian allies in Yemen.
Yet at the same time, diplomats say, the Saudis and Emiratis also have good reason to hope that the escalating threats stop short of a shooting war. The rulers of both countries are acutely aware that they are directly in the line of fire of any military conflict between the United States and Iran.
In recent weeks, missiles from Iran’s allies in Yemen, the Houthis, hit a Saudi oil pipeline as well as a civilian airport, where 26 people were reportedly injured.
Crown Prince Mohammed “will be thinking about the Houthi attack on that Saudi airport,” said Jenkins, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “That is bigger for him” than the episode in the Gulf of Oman.