Pompeo described the strike on Saudi Arabia as “an act of war” by Iran, a charge vociferously denied by Iran. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, but U.S. and Saudi officials doubt that claim and stress, as Pompeo did, that it has “the fingerprints of the ayatollah” — a reference to Iran’s supreme leader.
When pressed by reporters traveling with him about the efficacy of Trump’s current approach, Pompeo said something he perhaps didn’t quite intend. “I would argue that what you are seeing here is a direct result of us reversing the enormous failure of the JCPOA,” he said, using the official acronym for the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that Trump opted to leave.
Pompeo was hailing Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on the Iranians that has strangled the country’s oil exports and inflicted deep economic pain. But he also seemed to be linking the White House’s reneging of American commitments to the nuclear deal to the current veil of hostilities hanging over the Persian Gulf.
That’s a view held both by U.S. allies in Europe and analysts in Washington. “Having upended the nuclear agreement in pursuit of a bigger, better bargain with Iran — whose leaders are clearly disinclined to sit back and accept the U.S. economic onslaught quietly — Trump has ignited the forces of chaos and conflict that the deal was meant to contain,” wrote Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution.
Pompeo left the Middle East on Thursday insisting that the United States and its allies were still focused on a “peaceful resolution” of the current crisis. The White House’s main response to last weekend’s attack on a major facility operated by Saudi oil giant Aramco was an announcement of further sanctions on the already heavily sanctioned Iranian regime. Just days before world leaders gather in New York at the United Nations, there was little indication the Trump administration was plotting a concerted military response to Iran’s perceived aggression.
As my colleague Anne Gearan wrote earlier this week, Trump is walking a seemingly contradictory line. On one hand, he routinely rattles his saber at Iran and has applied sanctions even more asphyxiating than what the Obama administration mustered in its bid to force Iran to the table years ago. On the other hand, Trump’s vow of “maximum pressure” belies his own stated desire to disentangle the United States from protracted conflicts in the Middle East.
“Trump is caught between a political imperative to confront Iran — pleasing hawkish Republican supporters and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia — and his own political instincts against foreign intervention and toward cutting a deal,” wrote Gearan. “But uncertainty over where Trump stands has complicated every other foreign policy challenge the United States faces in the Middle East, unnerved Israel and helped push out the administration’s leading Iran hawk, former national security adviser John Bolton.”
The Iranians, who consistently blamed figures like Bolton for Trump’s confrontational agenda, seemed to have called the White House’s bluff. “In May, Iran’s leaders again concluded that countering American pressure required aggressive action that would change the cost-benefit calculus for Washington and the world,” Maloney wrote for The Washington Post. “Iran calculated that pushing back against the United States by targeting its allies and interests would generate diplomatic leverage that could be used in any future negotiations, inject urgency among world powers and dissuade its neighbors from cooperating with Washington’s pressure campaign.”
That seems to have been borne out by developments in the Persian Gulf, where even staunch U.S. allies such as the United Arab Emirates have, out of necessity, taken a more cautious, mollifying approach to Iran than the Trump administration. “European states that joined U.S. operations to secure the Persian Gulf in the past are very reluctant to do so now, because they fear Trump will drag them into a war,” noted The Post’s editorial board. “Even some of Iran’s foremost adversaries don’t want a conflict with Iran presided over by an erratic and unstable U.S. president, who already canceled one military strike at the last minute.”
Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Washington-based Gulf State Analytics, pointed to the unpredictability of “the typical Trump zigzag policy.” Even as Trump insists he’s willing to meet Iran’s leaders, it’s impossible to “rule out” a possible military escalation, Karasik told Today’s WorldView, adding that “war is already being waged by nontraditional means, including exchanges of cyberattacks.”
The trouble right now is that there’s no obvious track for diplomacy, and that’s a view shared both in Washington and Tehran. The “Trump administration’s approach toward the Islamic Republic has amounted to a confused and incoherent strategy,” wrote Alireza Saedi, who sits on the executive board of Iran’s sovereign wealth fund. He added that “a comprehensive agreement that will definitively resolve the long-standing conflict between Iran and the United States still seems far from within reach.”
Next week’s meetings at the United Nations are unlikely to serve as a space for rapprochement; both the Americans and Saudis are expected to air their grievances with the Iranians at the dais of the U.N. General Assembly. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has already instructed his proxies in President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif not to engage the United States in talks.
Domestically, Iran’s hard-liners will resist making any concessions to Washington and excoriate any Iranian official who does. “Nobody wants to be the individual who shows up holding the hand of the U.S. president and then has to go home and account for what he got out of that photo op,” Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute, told Today’s WorldView.
The current course of provocation is risky, said Vatanka, but hard-liners may believe it’s “an even worse risk to be seen to be willing to talk to Trump.” In the wake of the attacks on a major Saudi oil installation, some in Iran have already concluded that Trump’s bark is worse than his bite.