Iran faceoff may hinge on internal split
WASHINGTON — 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 by President Donald Trump, emboldens the hardliners 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 — de
spite periodic signs of reluctance from Trump.
For more than a year, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps pushed for Tehran’s leadership to abandon the restrictions of a nuclear agreement 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.
Once Washington ratcheted up the pressure with economic sanctions, even Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, who negotiated the nuclear accord and urged continuing to abide by the terms, began complaining of U.S. “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.
In Iran, tension with the U.S. bolsters the appeal of hard-line politicians aligned with the Revolutionary Guards 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 who argue that President Barack Obama’s outreach to Tehran had been working.
On Friday, Bolton met with the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., 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.
The question now is whether escalation prevails or whether the instinct to back away from direct confrontation kicks in.
It is hardly guaranteed, but it has happened before.
The two countries were closer to conflict a decade ago than 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 U.S. 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 sanctions 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 hardline factions at bay. They said it was better to stay within the limits of the accord than to incite a crisis.
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.
“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 saber-rattling but often hesitates when he senses his more hawkish advisers are driving him toward conflict in the region.
In May, when headlines suggested that the two nations were hurtling toward an inevitable clash, Trump signaled that it was time to rein in those aides.
But there was no real dialogue, unless Trump has begun secret back-channel conversations though Oman or another party.
Ansari contended that the problem on the U.S. 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.
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 behavior, not changed leadership. The debate in Iran now, she said, was about whether to play for time and “bet on change in 2020,” in the U.S. elections.
An oil tanker goes out to sea near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, into the Gulf of Oman, where attacks on two vessels last week further inflamed rising tensions between the United States and Iran.