Trump pushes U.S. to brink with Iran

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNE GEARAN AND CAROL MORELLO

One con­stant in Pres­i­dent Trump’s malleable for­eign pol­icy has been his fierce crit­i­cism of Iran and what he de­scribed as a weak and dan­ger­ous nu­clear com­pact the United States and other coun­tries ne­go­ti­ated with Tehran.

Threats and sanc­tions, and lots of them, have been his go-to re­sponse, lately leav­ened with vague of­fers of fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Trump’s re­ac­tion to at­tacks on two com­mer­cial tankers near the Strait of Hor­muz on Thurs­day fits the pat­tern, but it may also re­veal the lim­its of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strat­egy of squeez­ing Iran’s oil-de­pen­dent econ­omy even if it means pun­ish­ing U.S. al­lies in the process.

“Iran did do it,” Trump told Fox News on Fri­day, hours af­ter the U.S. mil­i­tary re­leased grainy video footage it says shows a small Ira­nian ship sidling up to a dam­aged tanker and peo­ple on the smaller ves­sel re­mov­ing an un­ex­ploded mine from the larger ship’s hull.

“You know they did it be­cause you saw the boat. I guess one of the mines didn’t ex­plode and it’s prob­a­bly got es­sen­tially Iran writ­ten all over it,” Trump said.

The tanker in­ci­dent pushed al­ready ris­ing ten­sions to new heights, with fears of a de­lib­er­ate or ac­ci­den­tal armed clash be­tween U.S. and Ira­nian forces as Trump and Ira­nian supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei ex­changed barbs on­line.

“I do not see Trump as wor­thy of any mes­sage ex­change, and I do not have any re­ply for him, now or in fu­ture,” Khamenei’s web­site quoted him as say­ing in re­sponse to an of­fer of di­a­logue.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has said its goal is to cut off all Ira­nian oil ex­ports, hum­bling the cler­i­cal regime and po­ten­tially per­suad­ing it to trim what Wash­ing­ton says is Tehran’s sup­port for ter­ror

ist proxy groups and to open new ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Each move by Trump — aban­don­ing the nu­clear deal ne­go­ti­ated by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­creas­ing sanc­tions and des­ig­nat­ing Iran’s Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps a for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion — has pushed the United States closer to a po­ten­tial con­flict with the Per­sian Gulf na­tion.

But Trump, who in­sists he wants to avoid Mid­dle East wars, is faced with a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion: Step back to re­duce ten­sions or move ahead uni­lat­er­ally and risk con­fronta­tion.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crit­ics say the White House is try­ing to pro­voke Iran to break the 2015 nu­clear bar­gain Trump hates, since the deal did not col­lapse when Trump pulled the United States out of it last year.

But the “max­i­mum pres­sure” cam­paign has not forced Iran to change its be­hav­ior or come to the ta­ble for new talks. If any­thing, it has set up a con­test with Iran that makes back­ing down harder for the regime, an­a­lysts said.

“What [Ay­a­tol­lah] Khamenei is say­ing to Trump is, ‘You want to ne­go­ti­ate, but you’ve made no of­fers and no con­ces­sions, and we will not re­spond to pres­sure,’ ” said Bar­bara Slavin, di­rec­tor of the Fu­ture of Iran Ini­tia­tive at the At­lantic Coun­cil. “I think the Ira­ni­ans are look­ing for some sort of ges­ture from the United States. Oth­er­wise, it’s too huge a loss of face at this point to talk to Trump.”

The United States alone can­not en­force a full em­bargo on Iran, and Trump’s cam­paign to re­duce Ira­nian oil ex­ports to zero has cost him lev­er­age with close al­lies, some of whom are work­ing to pre­serve the nu­clear deal he aban­doned. Oth­ers sus­pect Trump or his ad­vis­ers want con­flict with Iran, which is an en­emy of U.S. friends Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia.

The pres­sure cam­paign in­ten­si­fied last month when Wash­ing­ton stopped giv­ing some of Iran’s oil pur­chasers a pass, mak­ing them sub­ject to U.S. sanc­tions.

But Iran re­sponded with its own cam­paign of max­i­mum pres­sure. It has threat­ened to start stock­pil­ing low-level, non-weapons-grade ura­nium and to close off oil tanker traf­fic through the Strait of Hor­muz. U.S. of­fi­cials blame Iran for a string of re­cent in­ci­dents in­clud­ing the tanker at­tacks that ap­pear to be an in­di­rect show of force against the United States.

The White House has not an­nounced how it will re­spond to the tanker at­tacks. Of­fi­cials have hinted at ad­di­tional U.S. ships or other mil­i­tary as­sets in the re­gion and pos­si­ble mil­i­tary es­corts for com­mer­cial ships trav­el­ing through the vi­tal nar­rows off Iran’s coast.

Iran de­nies in­volve­ment, as it de­nies a sim­i­lar at­tack on a com­mer­cial ship last month and other re­cent in­ci­dents that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion says are marks of Iran’s des­per­a­tion in the face of se­vere eco­nomic hard­ship.

Many other na­tions see it dif­fer­ently, with di­plo­mats qui­etly point­ing out that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus on ever-in­creas­ing sanc­tions has left it few friends out­side the Mid­dle East will­ing to back its Iran pol­icy.

China and the Euro­pean Union both urged cau­tion Fri­day in mes­sages aimed equally at Iran and the United States.

Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Geng Shuang said that coun­tries should “avoid fur­ther es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions,” news agen­cies re­ported.

“We hope that all the rel­e­vant sides can prop­erly re­solve their dif­fer­ences and re­solve the con­flict through di­a­logue and con­sul­ta­tions,” he said.

A spokes­woman for the E.U. for­eign af­fairs of­fice called for max­i­mum re­straint. “We have said re­peat­edly that the re­gion doesn’t need fur­ther es­ca­la­tion, it doesn’t need desta­bi­liza­tion, it doesn’t need fur­ther ten­sion,” she said.

Ja­pa­nese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe was in Tehran when the ships were at­tacked. One of the ves­sels be­longs to Ja­pan, a fact U.S. of­fi­cials said Iran would have known. The owner of the tanker of­fered a dif­fer­ent ac­count of the na­ture of the at­tack. Yu­taka Katada, pres­i­dent of the Kokuka Sangyo ship­ping com­pany, said the Filipino crew of the tanker Kokuka Coura­geous thought their ves­sel was hit by fly­ing ob­jects rather than a mine.

Abe de­liv­ered to the Ira­ni­ans what di­plo­mats de­scribed as an of­fer from Trump to con­sider di­rect talks. Khamenei ap­par­ently re­jected that path out of hand, clos­ing the door for now on Trump’s peace­ful-exit strat­egy.

“It is ironic that the U.S. who un­law­fully with­drew from the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion now calls Iran to come back to ne­go­ti­a­tions and di­plo­macy,” a state­ment from Iran’s mis­sion to the United Na­tions said, us­ing the nu­clear deal’s for­mal ti­tle. “The U.S. eco­nomic war and ter­ror­ism against the Ira­nian peo­ple as well as its mas­sive mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion have been and con­tinue to be the main sources of in­se­cu­rity and in­sta­bil­ity in the wider Per­sian Gulf re­gion and the most sig­nif­i­cant threat to its peace and se­cu­rity.”

Al­though Trump has said that “all op­tions are on the ta­ble,” in­clud­ing mil­i­tary ones, to pre­vent Iran from gain­ing a nu­clear weapon or threat­en­ing the United States, he has also reined in hawk­ish aides and said pub­licly that he does not seek the over­throw of Iran’s lead­ers. That was widely read as an in­vi­ta­tion to Iran to ne­go­ti­ate, with a par­al­lel to Trump’s will­ing­ness to talk di­rectly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Iran is also bet­ting that Trump has no ap­petite for another war in the Mid­dle East, Slavin and oth­ers said, even if na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton has ap­peared to itch for a strike on Iran in the past.

Trump and Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pompeo ap­peared to tem­per their pub­lic state­ments.

Speak­ing to re­porters Thurs­day, Pompeo re­frained from brand­ing Ira­nian lead­ers as “evil,” as he has in the past. He em­pha­sized that the pol­icy is di­plo­macy and eco­nomic pres­sure, and he did not use the word “mil­i­tary.”

But the threat re­mains, in part be­cause of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s all-or-noth­ing ap­proach to Iran, said Ali Vaez, the se­nior Iran an­a­lyst for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group.

“This is a way sta­tion to a wider con­flict break­ing out be­tween Iran and the United States,” he said. “If Iran was be­hind [the at­tacks on tankers], it is very clear the max­i­mum pres­sure pol­icy of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ren­der­ing Iran more ag­gres­sive, not less.”

Karim Sad­jad­pour, an Iran spe­cial­ist at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, pre­dicted that Iran will “con­tinue to re­sist and care­fully es­ca­late and test Trump’s re­solve.”

“Iran is in a much big­ger bind than Trump be­cause sanc­tions are chok­ing off its key source of rev­enue — oil ex­ports,” Sad­jad­pour said. “Yet Iran be­lieves com­ing to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble will val­i­date the max­i­mum pres­sure ap­proach and in­vite even more pres­sure” from the United States.

U.S. of­fi­cials say they also pre­dicted that Iran would lash out un­der grow­ing eco­nomic pres­sure, and they in­sist they did not ex­pect im­me­di­ate re­sults.

“We also don’t think this is over,” one ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said shortly af­ter Pompeo had pub­licly blamed the tanker at­tacks on Iran, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity to freely dis­cuss pri­vate talks.

The for­eign min­is­ter of the United Arab Emi­rates, Ab­dul­lah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, said on Sat­ur­day that his gov­ern­ment had con­cluded that an at­tack on four ves­sels off the coast of the UAE in May was “state-spon­sored,” though he de­clined to name the state sus­pected. In a brief­ing to the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil this month, the UAE, along with Nor­way and Saudi Ara­bia, said the May 12 at­tack was a “so­phis­ti­cated and co­or­di­nated op­er­a­tion” that was likely the work of a state ac­tor.

“We hope we can fur­ther work with our friends and part­ners in pre­vent­ing such escalation­s,” Nahyan said Sat­ur­day at a news con­fer­ence with his Cypriot coun­ter­part in Ni­cosia.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a hawk­ish and fre­quent Trump ally on for­eign pol­icy, sug­gested that the pres­i­dent should be the one to es­ca­late.

“Put them on no­tice. Start es­cort­ing ships, and if there is another at­tack on com­mer­cial ship­ping in the Strait of Hor­muz, just sink all these fast boats. Just sink their navy,” Graham said in an in­ter­view with broad­caster Hugh He­witt on Fri­day.

TAS­NIM NEWS AGENCY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An Ira­nian naval ves­sel fights a fire on an oil tanker that was struck in an ap­par­ent at­tack in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hor­muz on Thurs­day. Pres­i­dent Trump ac­cused Iran of at­tack­ing this ves­sel and another the same day, also near the strate­gi­cally im­por­tant strait.

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