Is the Iran-U.S. tinderbox about to ignite?
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of "unprovoked attacks" near the Strait of Hormuz, video screens behind him showed thick black smoke billowing from the two tankers that were struck Thursday. It was the dramatic imagery that sometimes precedes armed conflict.
The U.S. response in the escalating confrontation with Iran, for now, seems to be continued pressure short of war. "Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table," Pompeo said.
Thursday's attacks were especially brazen because one of the targeted ships is Japanese-owned, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran at the time carrying a message from President Trump. As Pompeo put it, Abe's mission was "to ask the regime to de-escalate and enter into talks." Abe was rebuffed in person by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and symbolically by the attack on the tanker.
The bottom line is that Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign has collided head on with Khamenei's maximum resistance. Trump's recent talk about Iran's supposed eagerness for negotiations has been self-deluding, but so is any hope that Iran will quickly moderate its behavior. Met by American economic warfare, Iran's hard-liners are doubling down with their own forms of deniable warfare, with mines, drones and proxy attacks.
What are the internal dynamics of this escalating crisis and where is it heading? Conversations with a half-dozen current and former senior U.S. officials and other experts produced some early assessments:
- Iran is attacking partly because it has been badly hurt by U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran's early approach of strategic patience, hoping to wait Trump out, "has bled into gradual escalation," argues Behnam Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Iran is now willing to embrace the dynamic of risk" to escape the economic straitjacket.
- Trump has a new opportunity to broaden international support for his Iran policy, after isolating the U.S. last year by abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement. Brian Hook, the State Department special envoy for Iran, has been coordinating efforts at the United Nations Security Council. At a private meeting Thursday morning, most members condemned the tanker strikes, a U.S. official said. This coalition-building will increase.
- Trump's hopes for a quick win were misplaced. At recent overseas events, Trump has been dangling concessions and inviting negotiations. "We're not looking for regime change. I want to make that clear. ... We're looking for no nuclear weapons," he said in Tokyo May 27. "I'd much rather talk. ... The only thing is, we can't let them have nuclear weapons," he offered in London last week. And in Normandy, he declared: "I understand they want to talk and that's fine, we'll talk. One thing they can't have is nuclear weapons."
Not exactly subtle as a diplomatic pitch. Also, not successful.
- Hard-liners are more ascendant than ever in Tehran. Pompeo cited a steady escalation of attacks since early May on tankers, a Saudi oil pipeline, the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad and a Saudi airport. Potentially more dangerous are Iran's moves to escape provisions of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported this week that Iran is increasing its production of enriched uranium, which was capped under the pact.
- Diplomatic feelers from Iran, which raised some hopes in Washington, lack support from the supreme leader's camp. One such feint was this week's release after four years in prison of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman who had been living in Washington. Two months ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had proposed "serious dialogue" on a prisoner swap for Zakka. Sabotaging such diplomatic byplay may have been one goal of hard-liners in Thursday's tanker attacks.
The tableau of recent weeks has been striking. Trump has been a whirling dervish of diplomacy, almost pleading for Iran to come to the negotiating table and discuss a broader, longer-lasting deal that Trump could claim was an improvement over the one negotiated by his predecessor. Meanwhile, Khamenei has sat implacable, even as President Hasan Rouhani dangled hints Iran might be willing to talk.
But as long as Khamenei is alive, his voice is decisive. And it couldn't have been clearer Thursday, as he rejected Abe's mediation: "I do not consider Trump, as a person, deserving to exchange messages with. We will not negotiate with the United States."
You could almost hear, in the supreme leader's voice, an echo of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said during the Iran hostage crisis, "America can't do a damn thing against us." That Iranian overconfidence is what makes this confrontation so dangerous.
David Ignatius' column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.
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