We asked Just Security’s Laura Rozen for her assessment of the current tension between the United States and Iran. Two key questions follow.
Question 1. Rep. Adam Schiff, Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said this weekend that “There’s no question that Iran is behind the attacks. I think the evidence is very strong and compelling.” Has the United States supplied enough evidence to the public and to other States to support its assertion that Iran is responsible for the recent attacks on oil tankers? Has the Trump administration’s lack of credibility affected its ability to make its case now?
Rozen: I think there is the issue of whodunit, and then there are the issues of “then what,” and “how did we get here.” I think the Trump administration’s larger problem is perhaps less its credibility on attribution—(though I do think there is particular mistrust of National Security Advisor John Bolton on this), but more that much of the world and indeed much of Washington sees what may be Iran’s increasing aggression as a predictable and much predicted response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign that sought to punish Iran for the past year while it continued to comply with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The United States’ European allies in particular had been telling the Trump administration for over the past year that this kind of escalation scenario is likely what would eventually happen if the US withdrew from the deal and pursued virtual economic warfare on Iran with the vague goal of Iran “acting like a normal country,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo often puts it. Maybe the only surprise is how long it took for Iran to respond.
Question 2. If Iran did carry out last week’s attacks against the commercial tankers, what was its rationale? What message was it trying to send? Has it worked or backfired?
Rozen: It seems that there has been a shift in Iranian posture and actions that coincided with the Trump administration’s decision in April to revoke waivers that allowed a half dozen countries to continue purchasing reduced amounts of Iranian oil. (The Trump administration at the same time also revoked waivers that permitted Iran to ship out its heavy water to Oman and in theory, to ship out its stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia—the two areas where Iran announced in May it may soon exceed limits imposed under the nuclear deal if it doesn’t get more economic relief it was promised under the same deal that the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 15 times Iran is abiding by.) Around the same time the Trump administration also designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.
Before that series of US administration decisions in April (which the Washington Post reported this week some at the State Department and the Pentagon expressed concern about, but were overruled by Bolton and company), it seemed that Iran was being pretty cautious, and continuing to abide by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal even after Trump withdrew from it and reimposed sanctions.
Since then, there seems to be more rocket attacks near US bases in Iraq, increasing attacks on foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and Iran explicitly saying it will exceed the 300 kilogram limit of its stockpile of low enriched uranium by the end of June. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has publicly said since April in New York that he is authorized to negotiate a prisoner swap with the United States, maybe as a way to try to pursue some sort of dialogue with the president. Iran this week also released a Lebanese Green Card holder who has returned to the United States. Meantime, Trump has repeatedly said he is interested in talking with Iran, and both he and Pompeo have acknowledged that he asked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to convey some sort of proposal for dialogue when Abe visited Iran this month.
I think before the last few weeks of escalation of tensions, some foreign diplomats had the impression that Trump was eyeing the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York in the fall as a potential opportunity for him to meet with the Iranians. But then just before Abe’s trip to Iran, where he was going to propose US-Iran dialogue, the Trump administration announced new sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical sector. It is not clear to me that Trump is even aware of such decisions by his bureaucracy.
I worry that Bolton and his team may be making decisions on actions and sanctions designations, of which Trump is possibly wholly unaware, that fuel escalation and scuttle the possibility for dialogue that Trump says he seeks.