Iran face­off may hinge on in­ter­nal split

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By David E. Sanger and David D. Kirk­patrick

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.

Jon Gambrell / As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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