Nearly a week after two oil tankers were attacked with explosives in the Gulf of Oman, what actually happened is still in dispute. What is clear to everyone watching, though, is the Trump administration’s complete lack of credibility as it continues its bumbling attempts to express a coherent Iran policy.
Soon after the attack, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed a grainy video of several men on a small boat pulling an object from the side of a much larger vessel. He claimed the video showed an Iranian patrol boat removing an unexploded mine from the ship. This, he said, was irrefutable evidence that Iran had launched an attack on a Japanese-owned ship. Pompeo made these statements on the same day that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited Tehran — at the behest of President Trump — to urge Iran to begin new negotiations with the White House.
The skepticism was immediate. Allies who are predisposed to agree with the United States on all issues (such as Britain or and Israel), or specifically on anti-Iran measures (such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates) were on board.
But where was everyone else?
“The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me,” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told reporters on Friday. Japan has also requested stronger evidence.
Iran could very well have been behind the tanker attacks, as the Trump administration claims. But the lingering doubts about the White House’s account, expressed by friends and adversaries alike, are the real story here.
“There is no doubt,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday,” adding, “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it, but the American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world over the past 40 days.”
But there appears to be great doubt, and the fault lies with the administration’s flimsy and unconvincing case to counter what it claims is an increasing threat from Tehran.
As though on cue, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced on Monday that it would increase its stockpile of enriched uranium to beyond the limits it had agreed to as part of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, including the United States.
From the start, the entire premise of Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement with Iran was disingenuous. Like the Obama-era deal or not, it seemed to be doing what it was intended to do: limiting Iran’s nuclear activities so that it couldn’t weaponize its program. By withdrawing from the deal, the Trump administration gave up key leverage that it could use against the regime.
Iran’s move to begin pulling back from its commitments under the nuclear deal underscores that fact, and marks yet another escalation in tensions between Tehran and Washington.
The State Department’s narrative that Iran’s malign behavior over recent months is a result of a regime emboldened by a weak nuclear deal, and then angered by Washington pulling out of that same deal, is a farce.
The Iranian regime has been engaged in terrible acts since its inception 40 years ago. Its antagonism toward the United States and its allies has ebbed and flowed, depending on perceived threats and opportunities — and the U.S. withdrawal from the deal took away the major incentive Iran had to behave.
By its own rhetoric, the Trump administration is currently exerting what it calls “maximum pressure” on Tehran. Under this policy, reactions from Iran — such as the tanker attacks or increased uranium enrichment — are not only expected, but are, in essence, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By being pushed into a corner economically and militarily, the regime in Tehran may perceive there to be few other options.
Given recent events, the administration has reason to call for increased pressure on Iran. But other world leaders are signaling to the White House that they don’t trust Washington to lead the way.
The big question, then, is why is the administration failing so miserably in making its case to the world? The reactions to Pompeo’s remarks reflect how much credibility the administration has lost — both on Iran, and on its foreign policy objectives as a whole.
Pointing a finger at Iran for any crime was once as close to a slam dunk as there was in international politics. Not anymore.
That is because we are reminded at every turn that the notions of U.S. supremacy and security have little to do with the promotion of foreign democracy. The Trump team’s inability to take a principled stand on the thuggish behavior of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the tepid response to the crisis in Venezuela are prime examples.
And if Iran did attack the tankers, it was likely banking on exactly what has happened: one more crack in the United States’ shield of credibility.