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Standoff with Iran exposes Trump’s credibility issue as some allies seek more proof of tanker attack

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on June 16 the U.S. would "take all actions necessary" to guarantee freedom of movement in the Strait of Hormuz. (Video: The Washington Post)

As U.S. allies pressed the Trump administration for more concrete evidence linking Iran to attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that additional proof will be forthcoming.

Japan and Germany have requested stronger evidence than the grainy video released by the Pentagon appearing to show an Iranian patrol boat removing from one of the ships an item said to be an unexploded mine.

Pompeo said in appearances on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday” that he had spent much of the weekend talking with his counterparts in foreign capitals. It was an implicit acknowledgment that he has work to do convincing the world the U.S. accusations against Iran, which has denied responsibility for the suspicious explosions last week, are indeed, as Pompeo put it, “indisputable” and “unmistakable.”

“There is no doubt,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “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.”

Trump administration steps up efforts to show Iran carried out attacks

Last week’s tanker attacks have laid bare a credibility problem burdening the Trump administration as it faces skepticism, especially from wary U.S. allies urging “maximum restraint” to avoid a spiraling confrontation between the United States and Iran.

Pompeo bristled at the suggestion that the U.S. conclusion was under question, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s request for more information because the video was “not enough.”

“The German foreign minister has seen a great deal more than just that video,” Pompeo said on CBS. “He will continue to see more.”

Pompeo said some countries “just wish this would go away.” But he called it a fundamental right of every country to travel through the international waters of the Strait of Hormuz, which he said Iran is attempting to deny.

“I am confident that as we continue to develop the fact pattern, countries around the world will not only accept the basic facts, which I think are indisputable, but will come to understand that this is an important mission for the world,” he said.

But the uncertainty has persisted. Some is rooted in a suspicion of President Trump, who has made numerous misleading statements in the past. Some is focused on the national security adviser, John Bolton, who advocated the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the faulty assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

And some skepticism is aimed at Pompeo. In laying out a litany of Iran’s behavior in recent weeks, Pompeo said Tehran was behind a May 31 car bomb in Kabul as a U.S. convoy was passing, lightly injuring four U.S. service members and killing four Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that. But Pompeo said the Taliban claim should not be believed.

“We have confidence that Iran instigated this attack,” he said Sunday when asked about the discrepancy, adding, “I wouldn’t have said it if the intelligence community hadn’t become convinced that this was the case.”

The Taliban claimed an attack on U.S. forces. Pompeo blamed Iran.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been deteriorating since early May, when the Trump administration stiffened its enforcement of oil sanctions in an attempt to drive Iran’s oil revenue to zero.

At least two times this month, the Pentagon says, Iran or Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have tried to shoot down U.S. drones. One targeted drone was monitoring the fire aboard the Kokuka Courageous, the Japanese tanker hit Thursday.

Though he sidestepped questions about sending more American troops, ships, warplanes or submarines to the region, Pompeo said on Fox News that the United States will guarantee the safe transit of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

“This is an international challenge,” he said. “This is important to the entire globe. The United States is going to make sure that we take all actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise, to achieve that outcome.”

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official now with the Wilson Center, said Pompeo is attempting to build a case to get international support so the United States would not have to act alone if it responds. Many European allies believe the Trump administration started this cycle of escalation by pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran last year.

Questions about the U.S. account of what happened to the two oil tankers have swirled since Japanese shipping heads said the Kokuka Courageous was hit by a “flying object,” not a mine, as the U.S. video suggested.

What you need to know about the video the U.S. Central Command said shows Iran removing a mine from a tanker that was targeted on June 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Saudi and British governments agreed that the grainy U.S. video seemed to point to Iran, with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, calling on the international community to take a “decisive stance” against what he called Iranian expansionism.

In a story published Sunday by the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, the crown prince did not offer new evidence of Iran’s culpability in the tanker attacks, according to a transcript of his interview. Saudi Arabia views Iran as its principal adversary in the Middle East, and the Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates and Israel, have been key supporters of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against the Iranian government.

But Germany’s foreign minister said the video was insufficient to make a final assessment of blame.

The Japanese government is similarly unconvinced, according to Japanese media reports that Tokyo has asked Washington for concrete evidence to back its conclusion Iran is responsible.

“The U.S. explanation has not helped us go beyond speculation,” a senior government official told Japan Today.

Similar demands for “credible” proof have been made by a senior European Union foreign policy adviser and by Jeremy Corbyn, who is a leading member of Britain’s Parliament.

Taken together, the remarks represent an extraordinary display of refusal to take the administration’s assertions at face value.

Trump’s consistent criticism of Iran pushes U.S. to point of potential conflict

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said the Trump administration’s “low” credibility has added to confusion about what happened.

“It’s a little distressing to think that because this administration’s credibility is so low in general, I think a lot of people are thinking twice at a moment when America’s word should be decisive,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“That being said, this is not inconsistent with Iranian behavior that has been aggressive and often malignant in the region. The real question is what can we do, given the facts on the ground, to ensure a measured response that will de-escalate, rather than inflame, tensions in the region?”

Several lawmakers have said the White House should not go to war without seeking authorization from Congress.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on “Face the Nation” that “unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike” against Iran.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who heads the House Intelligence Committee, called the evidence “very strong and compelling.”

But he expressed concern about the influence of Pompeo and Bolton, both longtime hawks on Iran. Schiff, also appearing on CBS, agreed that Trump wants to avoid war in the Middle East but said “his people, and I don’t know whether [that] is Pompeo or Bolton or both, seem to be taking actions to undercut that ambition to stay out of war.”

Fahim reported from Istanbul, and Denyer reported from Tokyo. Elise Viebeck and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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