Tensions between Iran and the United States continued to build over the weekend. President Donald Trump and his lieutenants accused the regime in Tehran of launching attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week, pointing to apparent video evidence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard removing an unexploded mine from one of the targeted ships. “It’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it,” Trump said in his distinct syntax on Friday.
Appearing on television on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran’s culpability in the affair was “unmistakable” and urged the world “to unite against this threat from this Islamic Republic.” A coterie of Washington hawks in Congress and in the opinion pages of major newspapers floated the possibility of retaliatory military strikes against Iranian naval targets, an eventuality Trump is supposedly eager to avoid.
Iran denies any involvement in the attack. The situation in the Middle East occupied a morning session at the U.N. Security Council on Monday. But for all the Trump administration’s certainty and ire, the international response to the developments, with the exception of a handful of countries, has been rather muted.
Over the weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to various summits in Central Asia where he received the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Of Washington’s major allies, only Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman truly echoed Trump and Pompeo’s rhetoric, calling on the international community to take a “decisive stance” on Iran. But even Mohammed, whose penchant for reckless behavior is well known, insisted that his kingdom “does not want a war in the region.”
Elsewhere, U.S. allies met the Trump administration’s insistence on Iranian perfidy with caution and even skepticism. “The video is not enough,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters. “We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me.”
The Japanese owner of one of the tankers hit in the attacks claimed that, according to his crew, the vessel was struck by a “flying object” — not a mine, as the Trump administration claims. A source close to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a Trump ally who went to Tehran last week and tried to initiate a mediation between Trump and the Iranian regime, told Kyodo News Agency that what the Americans had presented as evidence did not amount to “definite proof” that Iran was to blame.
On Sunday, Pompeo suggested his administration was sure of the U.S. assessment. “We have confidence that Iran instigated this attack,” Pompeo said Sunday on CBS. “I can’t share any more of the intelligence. But I wouldn’t have said it if the intelligence community hadn’t become convinced that this was the case.”
Yet the Trump administration’s pattern of behavior offers reasons for doubt. The White House has publicly undermined or disregarded the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community in the past — most notably surrounding conclusions about Russian interference in the U.S. election and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Trump blatantly politicized intelligence last year in Helsinki when he threw the [intelligence community] under the bus and sided with Putin in denying Russian interference in 2016,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “So why should anyone believe what Trump team is saying now about intel on Iran? Let’s hear directly from Intel Community.”
Then there is Trump himself, who has uttered close to 11,000 documented falsehoods since coming to power. “For two and a half years in office,” noted Peter Baker of the New York Times, “Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said ‘he’s a liar’ and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.”
That lack of trust extends across the pond, too. Privately, European officials see the state of tensions as a direct consequence of the United States slapping major sanctions on Iran after it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal — a move British, French and German officials desperately lobbied against. U.S. officials argue Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is squeezing the regime and may force Tehran to make more concessions, including reining in its broader activities in the Middle East, than it did with the 2015 nuclear accord.
Experts aren’t so sure. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told my Washington Post colleagues it’s more probable Iran will “continue to resist and carefully escalate and test Trump’s resolve” — possibly with murky actions like those seen in recent weeks in key shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. Sadjadpour added that the asphyxiating sanctions may provoke Iran to lash out rather than curbing its behavior or forcing Iranian officials to conciliatory talks: “Iran believes coming to the negotiating table will validate the maximum pressure approach and invite even more pressure.”
The volatility of the present situation, and the increasing risk of a conflagration nobody wants, is exactly what the Europeans feared. Now they’re hesitant to join a confrontation they say was wholly avoidable and, in part, manufactured by the Trump White House.
“Unfortunately, our great comparative advantage as a nation — building and working with alliances — has eroded, particularly with respect to Iran,” tweeted Brett McGurk, who stepped down as the State Department’s lead envoy in the fight against the Islamic State at the end of last year. “Key western allies warned of this very circumstance and sequence of events when the U.S. began its maximum pressure campaign a year ago.”