“President Trump is punishing Iran and indeed the world community not for violating the JCPOA, but for complying with this UN-sanctioned international legal agreement,” former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami wrote in an op-ed published by the Guardian, using the formal abbreviation for the nuclear deal. “By exiting the JCPOA, the Trump administration has moved against the very principles of dialogue, engagement and coalition-building. It has spurned the cause of peace.”
There’s no off-ramp in sight. A number of figures have emerged as would-be mediators — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron, even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — but there’s little indication of what’s even up for mediation. American and Iranian officials are digging in, locked in a loud war of words while their navies tacitly test each other’s red lines. As the United States squeezes any entity purchasing Iranian oil — most recently imposing sanctions on a Chinese company — Iran is struggling to find new lines of credit and ways to offset the impact of the sanctions.
Tensions remain high after naval units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized the Stena Impero, a U.K.-flagged oil tanker, earlier this week — a move Tehran considered a retaliatory measure for the British impounding of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar. That vessel was seized in the Mediterranean on suspicion that it was breaching sanctions against Syria. Last week, the United States announced it had shot down an Iranian drone flying too close to a U.S. vessel, a downing that Iranian authorities denied took place. On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi, the head of Iran’s navy, said Iranian drones were tracking every U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf. Iranian officials also claimed they had nabbed a number of CIA spies operating in their country, a charge dismissed by Trump.
In a bid to stem a brewing crisis, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt unveiled plans for a European-led maritime security force in the Gulf, which Hunt stressed would function separately from U.S. operations in the region. The Iranians rejected the proposed international coalition as yet another unwelcome foreign incursion into their backyard.
The tit-for-tat strikes have yet to explode into a more dangerous confrontation, but analysts fear conflict could still be around the corner. After capturing the small British tanker, it’s unclear what Iran’s Revolutionary Guard may consider to be its next suitable move.
“The capture of the Stena Impero is no more surprising and unpredictable than it is awesome. (Somali pirates, armed with dhows and small arms, have taken vessels many times larger.) If anything, the Iranians are about to find out that their maritime adventurism has mostly irritated the world instead of intimidating it,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh. He added that such action probably “represents the highest hand the Islamic Republic can play against Western powers, short of a direct confrontation with a naval vessel. Having played it, the IRGC has nowhere else to go.”
It seems Trump and his allies have boxed in Iran, compelling a cornered regime to lash out. “Washington’s campaign of maximum pressure appears to be succeeding in driving Iran’s leadership to act like the international deviants the Trump administration has long made them out to be,” wrote the Atlantic’s Mike Giglio, suggesting that, with these small provocations, “Iran is fulfilling the prophecy of itself as a villain on the world stage.”
Of course, this is not quite how the Trump administration initially sold its decision to renege on U.S. commitments to the nuclear deal. It argued that the deal insufficiently checked Iran’s ability to build an atomic weapon and did nothing to curb Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East. Now, after pulling out of the accord and slapping sanctions back on Tehran, it finds Iran both accelerating its uranium enrichment and engaging in more overtly destabilizing behavior. Both these outcomes, argue a host of analysts, were eminently predictable.
Trump faces his own conundrum. Among his inner circle, as well as his allies in the Arab gulf monarchies and Israel, there are many who want to see regime change in Iran. But the president himself is believed to have no appetite for a real war and is more content posturing over aborted missile strikes. The question is how much longer the current standoff can remain as it is before it explodes into something more risky.
“It’s not entirely clear to me what our policy to [Iran’s] nuclear program, missile program and malign activity [is],” retired Gen. David Petraeus, who served as commander of U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday on CNBC.
Trump has kept open all possibilities, insisting he is happy to engage in dialogue with Tehran but has no problem sustaining the current pressure campaign. “I’m okay either way it goes,” he told reporters on Monday.
But that may not be true. “The Trump administration is facing a fork in the road with respect to its own policy,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Agence France-Presse, suggesting that Trump believes rapprochement with Iran is far more likely than it actually is — not least after his administration unilaterally scrapped a landmark agreement.
“I think the president wants a deal and he’s dangerously deluded about how easy it is to construct a deal on highly technical issues,” Maloney said.
In the absence of a clear diplomatic track, Petraeus warned, “there clearly is a prospect for some inadvertent escalation.”
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