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Some Iranians fear hard-liners in U.S. and Tehran want to provoke war

Iranians cross a road in Tehran on Saturday. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

DUBAI — With a confrontation simmering between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf region, some Iranians say they feel hemmed in on all sides and see various forces eager to stoke tensions that could lead to war.

“We know that there are three [main] groups that want to provoke Iran and the United States into a military confrontation: hard-liners in Iran, radicals in the United States, and Saudi Arabia and Israel,” said Farzad, 48, an engineer at a power plant in Iran’s Bushehr port on the gulf.

Farzad said he believes that Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Trump are being egged on by more hawkish aides, including officials in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.

Tensions in the Middle East flared in recent weeks following attacks on six commercial tankers, which U.S. officials have blamed on Iran. While Tehran has denied responsibility, some experts suspect the incidents were an Iranian reaction to mounting U.S. pressure, including economic sanctions.

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: REF:leej3, REF:samuelse/The Washington Post)

But if Iran carried out the attacks, it is not because of pressure from the United States, said Farzad, who was reached by telephone. “It is because of the economic and political benefit some groups in Iran would have if there is a war. Such acts are harmful to Iranians and for the government as a whole.”

Farzad, like other Iranians interviewed for this article, spoke without using his full name so he could discuss the Iranian government, which often represses dissent.

Tensions have spiked after the Trump administration withdrew last year from a landmark treaty that world powers negotiated with Iran, aiming to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. The United States has instead ramped up a “maximum pressure” campaign to isolate Iran.

Iranian officials have accused the Americans of “economic terrorism,” and on Monday, Iran said it would boost its stockpile of low-enriched uranium beyond limits set by the nuclear pact.

The most recent escalation came last week when a pair of tankers suffered explosions near the Strait of Hormuz, a key waterway for global energy shipments. The attacks, which struck Japanese- and Norwegian-owned vessels, were carried out as Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was on a high-stakes diplomatic visit to Tehran.

“It doesn’t make any sense that Iran would carry out such a mission since, before anything, it would sabotage its own reputation in the region,” said Leila, 31, an employee at a food distribution company in the Iranian capital.

Leila said she thinks it’s more likely that either Saudi Arabia or Israel, Iran’s chief foes in the region, “planned the attack and faked evidence” to “show the world that Iran is untrustworthy.”

To support her theory, Leila noted that the attack happened “right on the day that Iran was hosting Shinzo Abe and telling him that they only want the [nuclear deal] back.”

As evidence of Iranian culpability, U.S. Central Command has released videos and photographs it said showed an Iranian patrol boat approaching one of the tankers and removing an unexploded mine.

European officials have called on the United States to provide more evidence of Iranian guilt and urged restraint on all sides. Also Monday, the Pentagon said it was deploying about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East.

But even as some Iranians worried about military action, others who were interviewed said they understood Iran’s decision to reduce its commitments under the nuclear agreement, which had promised Iran relief from U.S. sanctions in return for adhering to nuclear restrictions.

Now, with a near-total U.S. embargo in place, Iran’s economy is suffering, oil sales are down, and the pact’s other signatories, including European nations, have struggled to maintain investments in Iran.

Their country is isolated, these Iranians said, and has few options other than to mount a strong response.

“Maybe if this nuclear problem had never started, things would not have escalated to this point,” said Fahimeh, a private-sector employee in Tehran, referring to Iran’s original pursuit of nuclear energy. “But now that we are here, I can understand why [Iranian] officials have no better option than to threaten uranium enrichment.”

Farzad, the engineer, said he believes Iran’s threats to increase its enriched uranium “are more severe than the actual steps they are taking in practice.”

Still, he said, “this is a very dangerous move.”

“A show like this only legitimizes the American provocations,” he said.

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