What is American policy toward Iran right now? Strategic belligerence?

Above is the latest take on Iran as broadcast on Hala London Radio by the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, William Morris. Meanwhile, Stafford Clarry, our senior member in Iraq, highlights a response by Wendy R. Sherman, the lead American negotiator on the nuclear agreement, and a former State Department ambassador to Isaac Chotiner’s question in the New Yorker when asked:  “What is your sense of American policy toward Iran right now? Do you see any rhyme or reason, or anything that could even be called strategic belligerence?”

I do not think there is a coherent policy or strategy regarding Iran. I think President Trump made a commitment during the campaign to withdraw from the deal. His then [team] all believed he should not. When they all departed, his new team supported his withdrawing from the deal. Within that new team, I would say we have the never-saw-a-war-he-didn’t-want-to wage national-security adviser, John Bolton. We have a chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who pretty much endorses everything the President says. We have an acting Secretary of Defense [Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from the confirmation process on Tuesday] who clearly doesn’t have a voice in this Administration, it appears. And we have a Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] who may think he is trying to bring nuance to this policy, but seems to be pursuing a path which, either intentionally or by accident, may take us to war.

Trump’s better deal with Iran will probably look a lot like Obama’s

Stafford Clarry, our senior NCF member in Iraq, pointed out this article from Politico by Nahal Toosi. The point being that Iran appears to be ready to negotiate, and the Trump team claim they are ready to negotiate. But it would seem that the White House is very reluctant when it comes down to the wire, to actually engage in the substantive second track discussions that are necessary. (Politico is a free political newsletter accessible on this link)

Donald Trump has long trashed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever,” a “disaster” that didn’t cover nearly enough of the Islamist-led country’s nefarious behavior.

In recent weeks, however, the president has indicated that the Barack Obama-era deal might not be so bad after all.

Trump has repeatedly urged Iran to engage in negotiations with him, while saying that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are his chief concern — “A lot of progress has been made. And they’d like to talk,” Trump asserted Tuesday at the White House. His aides and allies, meanwhile, have recently suggested that Iran and other countries should follow the guidelines of a deal they themselves have shunned as worthless.

At times, analysts and former officials say, it sounds like Trump wants to strike a deal that essentially mirrors the agreement that his White House predecessor inked — even if he’d never be willing to admit it. Iranian officials seem willing to egg him on, saying they’ll talk so long as Trump lifts the sanctions he’s imposed on them and returns to the 2015 Iran deal. And as European ministers warn that the existing deal is nearly extinct, Trump may feel like he is backed into a corner and running out of options.

“Trump got rid of the Iran nuclear deal because it was Barack Obama’s agreement,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who helped oversee the 2015 deal’s implementation. “If you were to present to Trump the same deal and call it Trump’s deal, he’d be thrilled.”

The administration’s confusing messaging is a result of warring between two major factions, U.S. officials say, with Trump in his own separate lane. The infighting has been deeply frustrating to those involved in the debate. “In the past, even when I personally disagreed with a policy, I could explain its logic,” a U.S. official said. “Now I can’t even do that.”

Trump quit the nuclear deal in May 2018, reimposing sanctions the U.S. had lifted on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. He said the deal should have tackled Iran’s non-nuclear activities, such as its sponsorship of terrorist groups, and blasted the expiration dates on some of its clauses.

For a year afterward, Iran continued to abide by the deal’s terms, hoping that the other countries involved — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — could offer Tehran the economic relief Trump had taken away. But as that relief has failed to materialize, Iran has begun backing away from its commitments.

Tehran recently breached limits on its enrichment and stockpiling of uranium and has promised more infractions in the coming months. The U.S. has also accused Iran of attacking several international oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the Pentagon has sent warships and more troops to the region in response.

As tensions have spiked, one voice pushing for a deal has been Trump.

He’s said he’s “not looking for war,” wants to talk to Iran without preconditions and isn’t interested in regime change. He called off a military strike on Iran over its downing of an unmanned U.S. drone, overriding the advice of several top aides. His main public demand is that Iran not build nuclear weapons. In return, Trump has offered to help revive Iran’s sanctions-battered economy.

To observers, that sounds suspiciously like the 2015 deal.

“They can’t have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said Tuesday. “We want to help them. We will be good to them. We will work with them. We will help them in any way we can. But they can’t have a nuclear weapon.”

Trump occasionally nods to other disputes with Iran, such as its funding of militia groups, ballistic missile testing and Tehran’s support of rebel forces in Yemen, but nuclear weapons dominate his rhetoric.

In June, Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency — the body that inspects Iran’s nuclear program under the 2015 agreement — called on Iran to stick to the deal after an IAEA inspection report detailed a disputed potential violation.

“Iran has claimed that it continues to comply with the JCPOA, but it is now reported to be in clear violation of the deal,” Wolcott said, referring to the agreement’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “This should be of great concern to all of us. The United States calls on Iran to return to compliance without delay.”

Afterward, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus faced questions about why the U.S. wants Iran to adhere to a deal that it has claimed doesn’t truly constrain its nuclear ambitions.

“I don’t think it’s contradictory in the fact that we have stated very loudly since the beginning of this administration that we do not want the Iranian regime to get a nuclear weapon,” Ortagus said. “We think it would be disastrous for the Middle East. I — we haven’t changed our position.”

In a statement to POLITICO, a State Department official called the JCPOA “a flawed deal because it did not permanently address our concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and destabilizing conduct. The U.S. is seeking a deal with Iran that comprehensively addresses the regime’s destabilizing behavior — not just their nuclear program, but also their missile program, support to terrorism, and malign regional behavior.”

Several European officials express astonishment at the audacity of the Trump administration demanding that Iran adhere to the deal when the U.S. the one who breached the agreement in the first place. Some said they were not surprised that Iran may have taken actions in the Persian Gulf as payback for the U.S. abandonment of the deal.

Europeans “know that the original sin causing the current escalation in the Gulf is the U.S. violation of the Iran nuclear deal,” said Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. “At the same time, they are terribly concerned about the escalation and the threat it poses to the Middle East and to Europe itself.”

U.S. officials and outside observers say there appear to be two main competing factions inside the Trump administration when it comes to Iran policy.

Both camps are convinced that Iran’s Islamist regime is a bad actor in the Middle East. Neither particularly cares for the nuclear deal, either, viewing it as too weak a document.

But one group, led by national security adviser John Bolton, is simply more hardline than the other.

Bolton, who has previously called for regime change in Iran, and his supporters appear determined to kill the deal and heap on sanctions, erasing Iran’s ability to trade beyond its borders. Their version of what the administration calls a “maximum pressure campaign” seems to aim for a major reckoning in Iran, though they demure on whether that could involve a U.S.-led ouster of the regime or would simply set the stage for ordinary Iranians to revolt.

The other group appears to not have a visible leader, but it seems willing to allow the nuclear deal to tenuously remain intact, while ramping up economic sanctions that starve the regime of resources. This group, for instance, is hoping for the success of a European financial mechanism built to help Iran more easily obtain non-sanctioned goods, thus possibly helping sustaining the deal in hobbled form. That way, the group argues, Iran can’t race toward a nuclear weapon, but it also will be unable to spend as much funding militias and terrorist groups in the region.

A second U.S. official said one main difference between the two groups is that Bolton-led crew has no desire to make any sort of deal with Iran, while the other side believes that under enough pressure, Iran would be willing to negotiate a new, better agreement than the one in 2015.

“Bolton thinks he’s playing the longer game. That he can’t leave this administration having given an inch on Iran,” the official said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is generally believed to be in the camp that wants a deal, but he’s also laid out a set of 12 conditions on Iran that are so broad they may be damaging the odds of talks. A third U.S. official who confirmed the outlines of the internal debate said Pompeo may be worried about his future in the Republican Party and whether engaging in any sort of negotiation with Iran could damage it.

The result is a cacophony of voices speaking for the administration, including some out of sync with Trump.

“We’ve got very different messages because they don’t seem to have the same end goals,” the first U.S. official said of the various Trump aides involved. “We’re studiously ignoring ‘the deal that shall not be named’ in our official talking points, but in the same breath demanding that Iran adhere to conditions that were part of the deal.”

Blanc, the Obama administration official, said what Trump seems to want is a grand show, the type that he’s gotten in his one-on-one meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But there are serious political risks for Iran’s leaders in meeting Trump, especially after the president walked away from a deal that was hard to sell to all of Iran’s competing political factions in the first place.

Trump, Blanc said, “has an instinctive understanding that he’s not going to get that pageant if Iran thinks he’s pursuing a regime change policy.”

Perhaps sensing this, Trump on Tuesday went out of his way to note that he didn’t want to oust the government in Tehran. “We’re not looking, by the way, for regime change because some people say [we are] looking for regime change,” he said. “We’re not looking for regime change.”

In the meantime, Iran appears determined to exploit the divisions within the Trump administration, as well as the fissures between the U.S. and Europe over the Iran deal.

Iran’s recent calculated breaches of its nuclear pledges are meant to increase pressure on the Europeans to find ways around U.S. sanctions. And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif even uses Twitter to taunt the Trump team over these disagreements, lambasting the president’s top aides as the “B-Team.”

“As it becomes increasingly clear that there won’t be a better deal, they’re bizarrely urging Iran’s full compliance,” Zarif tweeted on July 8. “There’s a way out, but not with #B_Team in charge.”

The way out Zarif mentions? Presumably a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Reflections on the confrontation with Iran

US Ambassador Mark G Hambley and William Morris of the Next Century Foundation discuss Iran in the third of three broadcasts from Springfield Massachusetts for Hala London Radio:

As America and Iran inch closer to war, new talks are needed

A couple of interesting and well informed articles on Iran by Nick Pelham in the Economist the other day. This was the editorial:

For nearly four years Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon was blocked. The deal it signed with America and other powers in 2015 limited its nuclear programme to civilian uses, such as power-generation, and subjected them to the toughest inspection regime in history. The experts agreed that Iran was complying and that its nuclear activities were contained. But then President Donald Trump ditched the nuclear deal and Iran resumed stockpiling low-enriched uranium. It is now poised to breach the 300kg cap set by the agreement. Iran may hesitate before crossing that line, but it is also threatening to increase the enrichment level of its uranium, bringing it closer to the stuff that goes into a bomb.

Fortunately, Iran is not about to become a nuclear-weapons power. Its breakout time is over a year. But it is once again using its nuclear programme to heap pressure on America. That adds an explosive new element to an already-volatile mix. America accuses Iran of attacking six ships in the Strait of Hormuz since May. On June 20th Iran shot down an American spy drone. America insisted the aircraft was above international waters, not Iran’s, and sent warplanes to strike back. Ten minutes before they were due to hit targets inside Iran Mr Trump called them off and contented himself with a cyber-attack instead . . .

The rest of the editorial can be found here. And for the full background article use this link.

Are John Bolton’s days numbered?

Stafford Clarry, the Next Century Foundation’s senior member in Iraq, seems to think that John Bolton’s days as the US government’s National Security Advisor are coming to an end. He writes that:

There is a good chance, as with so many other top staff in the White House administration who have come and gone.
National Security Advisor (NSA) Bolton’s historically hawkish approach to US foreign policy has been long known, which is affirmed by his behavior during his short stint in the White House.
On Iran Stafford adds:
US-Iran relations that impact the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) are currently under control. Knowledgeable and experienced observers, however, fear “miscalculation, misjudgment, or human error”. See Speigel Online interview with former US CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta below.
US-Iran military conflict is less likely largely because of potential adverse impact the 2020 US presidential election for the current White House. This is compounded by White House (Trump) well-known hesitancy in involving the US in another war.
North Korea attracts wanted/needed attention from the highest levels because they have nuclear weapons and missile capabilities for leverage. 
In observing the North Korea situation, Iran is making moves toward increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities in order to gain leverage to attract unwanted/unneeded attention.

NBC News 2 July 2019

Bolton the hawk struggles to retain his influence with Trump

Analysis: John Bolton remains the chief skeptic of diplomacy with North Korea and Iran, but is he losing influence with the president?

By Dan DeLuce, Carol E. Lee, and Andrea Mitchell

WASHINGTON — John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s famously hawkish national security adviser, could not have been enthusiastic when his boss crossed into North Korean territory last weekend to make a bit of history with the leader of the Pyongyang regime, Kim Jong Un.
 
For years, Bolton has warned against conciliatory gestures or negotiations with North Korea. Two months before he took his current job, Bolton argued in an op-ed for a preemptive strike on North Korea based on what he called an “imminent” threat.
 
Now Trump’s latest diplomatic gambit with North Korea has raised fresh questions about the influence of his national security adviser, who has appeared out of sync with the president in recent weeks, particularly when it comes to how to handle Pyongyang.
 
When the president stepped into North Korean territory briefly alongside Kim Jong Un over the weekend, Bolton was conspicuously absent, holding talks 1,200 miles away in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar.
 
While Bolton was on his previously scheduled trip to Mongolia, a fierce critic who has painted him as a warmonger — Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson — was on hand for the president’s rendezvous with the North Korean leader.
 
A day after Trump’s unprecedented walk across the demilitarized zone into North Korean territory, Bolton pushed back against a report in the New York Times that said the administration was considering scaling back its demands on Pyongyang and accepting a freeze on North Korea’s production of nuclear material instead of a full dismantling of its arsenal.
 
“Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK,'” Bolton tweeted. He called the report “a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”
Trump, who as a candidate promised to extract America from wars overseas, has openly acknowledged that he and Bolton do not see eye to eye at times, but he has insisted he retains confidence in his national security adviser.
 
“John Bolton is doing a very good job but he takes a generally tough posture,” Trump said last month. He called Bolton a “hawk,” and added, “I have other people that don’t take that posture, but the only one that matters is me.”
 
Bolton’s trip to Mongolia had been planned a month before the impromptu meeting with Kim, a person familiar with the planning said, and he stopped in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli and Russian officials. Bolton chose to go to Mongolia instead of the DMZ because the country has “a critical bilateral relationship that the U.S. is looking to deepen across economic and military ties,” this person said.
 
A senior official insisted Bolton’s view was not out of step with Trump’s on North Korea. The president remains committed to an agreement that would require Pyongyang to give up its entire nuclear weapons program in return for a lifting of economic sanctions, instead of an incremental, step-by-step negotiation, the official told NBC News. “The policy on North Korea is what it has been and continues to be, the big deal. Hand over all of it,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
 
It was the State Department and Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy to North Korea, who have sometimes moved beyond the president’s position, the official said, citing the February summit in Hanoi that ended abruptly without an agreement. “The last time the State Department got ahead of the President he walked from Hanoi.”
 
In May, hours after Bolton told reporters North Korea had violated United Nations resolutions with a short-range missile test, Trump played down the episode.
 
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump tweeted. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
 
It’s not the first time the president has publicly contradicted senior members of his administration. Trump blindsided former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others with tweets and remarks that ran counter to previously stated policies.
 
“It’s kind of a way of publicly putting Bolton in his place,” one source close to the White House said. “He kind of takes glee in doing it publicly.”
 
According to three sources with close ties to the administration, friction between Trump and Bolton worsened in late May over Iran.
 
Outside advisers and supporters told Trump he was being dragged into a confrontation with Iran and alleged his aides were moving ahead without fully consulting him, the sources said. The president came away angry and ready to question Bolton.
“There definitely are tensions,” one of the sources said of Trump’s and Bolton’s relationship.
 
The dynamic between the two men ebbs and flows, with Bolton at times favored by Trump and at other times a source of irritation, the sources said. Bolton’s status is not helped by the fact that he has made few allies inside the administration.
 
Nevertheless, the president did not appear to be ready to sack Bolton, the sources said.
 
While Bolton is at odds with some other members of the administration over North Korea, he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are mostly in agreement on pursuing a tough line with Iran, current and former officials said. But Pompeo enjoys a closer rapport with the president, and is more adept at adjusting to Trump’s view and pulling back on a course of action that makes the president uncomfortable, current and former officials said.
 
The White House National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.
 
James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, said that under previous administrations, it would have been “unthinkable” for a president and a national security adviser to air their disagreements in public.
 
“Publicly it sends a very bad signal, both to our allies and also it encourages our opponents,” the retired admiral told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “Kim is thinking, ‘Wow, this is terrific.'”
 
Despite Trump’s wariness of military confrontation, Bolton has had a substantial impact on the administration’s policies, helping to push through harsh economic sanctions on Iran and the Maduro regime in Venezuela, former officials and experts say.
 
But Trump is reportedly disappointed that the sanctions have not spelled the end of the Maduro regime as quickly as Bolton and his team expected.
 
Last week, Bolton played a role in Trump’s decision to impose yet more sanctions on Iran, targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials days after Tehran downed a U.S. drone.
 
People close to the national security adviser downplayed the significance of any differences between Bolton and the president, saying Bolton’s not worried. Trump “likes people who have different opinions,” one of them said.
 
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine published in April, Bolton said he accepts that his view does not always prevail in the White House.
 
“You have to know in advance the president’s views are not always yours. When you enter government, you know that you aren’t going to win everything.”
 
Stavridis said the president’s treatment of Bolton could force the national security adviser to question his future in the administration.
 
“He’s got to start seeing that self-respect light flickering a little bit, flashing yellow,” Stavridis said.
 
“I think he has to figure out a way to close the gap with his boss or look for other opportunities to serve,” he said.

Spiegel Online 2 July 2019

Former Secretary of Defense Panetta on Iran ‘You Can Create Chaos, but You’d Better Have a Plan’

By Roland Niles
DER SPIEGEL: Secretary Panetta, late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump called off a military strike against Iran at the very last minute — according to him, just 10 minutes before the missiles were to be launched. Have you ever seen something like that before?
 
Panetta: No, I haven’t. Generally, when you’re discussing that kind of military operation, there is a great deal of time spent in the National Security Council discussing the different options and the consequences of each option. There is normally a great deal of consideration about the pros and cons of conducting such a military strike. If it is done according to that process, the president early on reaches a decision as to whether he will proceed with a mission or not. In my experience, once a president has made the decision to proceed with a mission, he goes forward with it.
 
DER SPIEGEL: Trump claimed that he learned just 10 minutes before the strike was to take place that 150 people would likely lose their lives. Do you think this account is accurate?
 
Panetta: If that’s what happened, then it’s a dysfunctional process. I cannot imagine that the Defense Department would have plans for going after certain targets that did not include what the casualties would be if you struck those targets. That should have taken place early on in the discussion. If that discussion was bypassed and it was only 10 minutes before the strike that the president was made aware of the number of casualties, then something is terribly wrong with the decisionmaking process in the White House.
 
DER SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, since the resignation of Jim Mattis at the end of last year, the Defense Department has only been led by an acting secretary without Senate confirmation. How much does this affect the president’s ability to react to crises or make important decisions involving the military?
 
Panetta: It further weakens the process that should take place in determining whether or not military action should occur. If you’re only dealing with an acting secretary, by the very nature of that title, that secretary is in a weakened position — not only in dealing with the military, but also in dealing with the White House. The feeling is that he is just there temporarily rather than being there in a permanent position, having been confirmed by the Senate. It really does undermine the authority of Defense Department leadership.
 
DER SPIEGEL: How dangerous is the situation in the Gulf right now? Is war a real possibility?
 
Panetta: It is a dangerous situation. I think there’s no question that tensions are increasing on both sides. The United States is ratcheting up sanctions while Iran is obviously willing to not only take down drones, but also to conduct attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. And the danger, of course, is that the more these tensions increase, the greater is the possibility of a miscalculation, misjudgment or human error on one side or the other that could result in military confrontation.
 
DER SPIEGEL: What would happen if the U.S. were to strike targets in Iran? Even if such strikes were limited, would a larger conflict become inevitable?
 
Panetta: That was always our estimation when I was at the Department of Defense — that if you struck targets in Iran, missile sites or installations or other targets, that Iran would literally respond, either by firing missiles at our military bases in the Gulf or having missiles fired towards Israel. They have a pretty effective missile system.
 
DER SPIEGEL: Many people believe that militias allied with Iran would attack U.S. facilities or American allies in other countries as well. Is that a realistic scenario?
 
Panetta: I think Iran would use several approaches. They have the capability of directing proxies like Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and others to conduct attacks in other parts of the region. So they really have a number of options for retaliation. It isn’t going to be a situation where the United States could simply bomb targets and walk away without paying a price.
 
DER SPIEGEL: With his strategy of “maximum pressure,” Trump is still trying to force Iran to the negotiating table. Do you think it will work?
 
Panetta: I have concerns about the president’s maximum pressure tactics on a number of fronts. He’s used maximum pressure on North Korea and we still don’t have any plan for denuclearization. He’s used maximum pressure on trade with these tariffs, and we still have not resolved those trade issues. He’s used maximum pressure with Iran, but I don’t know that he has ever determined what the longterm strategy is going to be with regard to these kinds of tactics. You can use maximum pressure, you can create chaos, but you’d damned well better have a plan to resolve the issue. And I don’t think he thinks that far ahead.
 
DER SPIEGEL: What is the Iranian approach at the moment?
 
Panetta: I think they are thinking that they’re dealing with a very unpredictable and uncertain president who is not quite sure what path to take to try to resolve these issues. The fact that the president says the main objective is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and yet, at the same time, is the same person who tore up the Iran agreement, which was the only viable plan for trying to restrain Iran from proceeding with a nuclear weapon, creates enough distress on the part of Iran that they’re not sure — even if they sat down and negotiated with the president — that he would keep his word.
 
DER SPIEGEL: What about advisers close to the president like National Security Advisor Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Do you think they have a plan for resolving this situation?
 
Panetta: I would hope so, because they’re in the position to be thinking about that. At the same time, I think they’re trying to feel their way with the president, in terms of just exactly what he wants to do. I assume they supported a military strike and it probably took them by surprise that the president decided not to go through with it.
 
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DER SPIEGEL: What is the best path to get out of this mess?
 
Panetta: I think the best approach for the United States would obviously be to make sure that we have sufficient military strength in the region in the event we are called upon to defend our forces there. Secondly, it is absolutely essential that we keep the Strait of Hormuz open, with a third of the oil in the world passing through the straight. Not only our national security, but the economy of the world is dependent on that. Thirdly, because there is so little trust between the United States and Iran, the better approach to try to open up a diplomatic channel would be to use our allies Germany, Great Britain, France and, yes, Russia and China, all of which are partners to the Iran agreement.
 
DER SPIEGEL: There has been plenty of criticism of Trump’s Iran policy. But he did get a lot of positive feedback for his decision to call off the strike, including from Democrats.
 
Panetta: In two-and-a-half years, it’s probably the one thing he has got right.
 
DER SPIEGEL: Trump’s decision reflects widespread public opinion in the U.S.: Many Americans seem to be opposed to any kind of overseas military involvement. Is that an accurate description of the general mood in the U.S.?
 
Panetta: I think the general notion is to try to avoid becoming involved in a Middle East war that is not justified in terms of our national security. I think the Iraq experience still is something that impacts American public opinion — there is a feeling that that war was not necessary. If it’s a war created more by the parties, by their inability to resolve issues, I think there would be a lot of concern about that kind of conflict. If, on the other hand, our national security was truly called into question and Iran suddenly started attacking our military bases in the region and killing Americans, I don’t think there’s any question that this country would be unified in fighting back.

The White House will meet Iran “without condition”, “on condition” that Iran behaves

The Next Century Foundation’s senior member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry, writes on his view in regard to the ongoing war or no war crisis between the USA and Iran:

Everyday Iranians are suffering the severe consequences of US-imposed sanctions, not terribly unlike what everyday Iraqis suffered during 13 years (1990 to 2003) of UN-authorized sanctions that were arguably much more severe. The UN sanctions on Iraq shut down oil exports completely (to zero) and prohibited all UN Member States from trading anything and everything with Iraq, with the sole exceptions of food and medicine. Thirteen(13) years!

The Iranian leadership will not suffer personal hardship due to US sanctions; indeed, they may thrive economically. The Iraqi leadership did not suffer personal hardship due to UN sanctions; indeed, they continued to build palaces.

It’s hard to imagine where “maximum pressure” on Iran is going given the results so far of “maximum (limited) pressure” on North Korea, China, Venezuela, and even the Palestinians.

One way of looking at it: Active dominates Passive – actively bad dominates passively good, actively good dominates passively bad. But where’s the dominant action when “maximum pressure” meets “maximum resistance”?

To move the situation forward, the White House has offered to meet and converse with Iran without preconditions, on the condition “when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation”.

https://fr.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1T30DV

A seasoned NYT analyst and regular columnist warns, “Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and [the White House is] a terrible negotiator with a good hand.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/22/opinion/sunday/dowd-trump-iran.html

Where is all this going when one side, apparently, deftly plays defensive offense?


The Washington Post
20 June 2019
 
 
The U.S. should strive for a stable Iran. Instead, it is suffocating it.
 
By Ardeshir Zahedi and Ali Vaez
Ardeshir Zahedi is Iran’s former foreign minister (1966-1971) and ambassador to England (1962-1966) and United States (1960-1962 and 1973-1979). Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, based in Washington.
 
We belong to two very different generations of Iranians. One of us served in senior official positions in the pro-Western monarchy that ruled Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution; the other is a child of that revolution. One presided over the golden age of Iran-U.S. relations; the other was subject to years of state-sponsored anti-American indoctrination. Yet, despite these differences, we share a sense of belonging to both countries and grave concerns about the collision course they are on.
 
The Trump administration seems to believe it can achieve what has eluded its predecessors for four decades: fundamental change in Tehran. It has resorted to a time-worn set of tools to attain this objective: strangling the Iranian economy through sanctions, destabilizing Iran by supporting dissidents and secessionists, and launching an information war against the leadership in Tehran. It appears convinced that exercising what it calls “maximum pressure” will cause Iranian capitulation or regime collapse.
 
The Iranian people, meanwhile, strive for democracy as they have for more than a century, amid growing discontent over endemic corruption, repression and environmental degradation. They deserve a government that respects their rights, preserves their dignity, and offers them peace and a chance at prosperity. Washington’s belligerence, however, could once again bring their democratic struggle to grief. This is for several reasons.
 
First, the Trump administration has very little credibility as the would-be standard-bearer of positive change. Its rhetoric promising to “crush” Iran or usher in “the official end of Iran” through military action belies its professed distinction between the leadership and the Iranian people.
 
The administration’s list of public missteps toward the Iranian people is as long as it is regrettable. It includes preventing almost all Iranians from visiting the United States; misstating the historic name of the Persian Gulf; failing to express sympathy with Iranians after terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and separatist groups; and, perhaps most consequentially, withdrawing from the nuclear deal that remains popular in Iran and to which many there had pinned their hopes for a better life.
 
These mistakes have helped transform top-down anti-Americanism in Iran into a bottom-up phenomenon. Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.
 
How can Iranians buy into the administration’s professions of positive intent when Washington selectively decries their leaders’ corruption and human rights violations while overlooking the same behavior among U.S. allies? Why didn’t President Trump ask his North Korean or Russian counterparts to fundamentally reorient their policies before he would engage them in fruitless pageantry?
 
The administration’s Iran policy is not a strategy. It is a pressure tactic wrapped in bellicosity folded inside a chimera. It is bereft of a viable vision and based on the naive assumption that overthrowing the Islamic republic will miraculously lead to a pluralistic and pro-American order. That previous U.S.-sponsored regime change in the region has ushered in failed states or worse autocracies seems to be an afterthought.
 
Even when the administration seems to vie for rapprochement, it is unconvincingly inconsistent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, “We are prepared to engage in a conversation [with Iran] with no preconditions,” but in the same news conference , he goes on to say that would happen only “when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation.” This kind of double-speak and condescension does not instill trust.
 
The suffocating sanctions that the United States is slapping unilaterally on Iran have pushed the country into a deep inflationary recession, impoverishing its middle class and enriching state-affiliated actors, especially men with guns and experience in circumventing restrictions. This could lead to one of two outcomes: a weakened Iranian society, in which making ends meet will overshadow any quest for liberty; or a blind, desperate revolt that ends either in a brutal crackdown or a bloody civil war.
 
Either scenario will leave behind a broken, radicalized and militarized Iran, perhaps entrenching the Islamic republic’s most hard-line elements. How does that temper Iran’s behavior? How is that in the United States’ interest?
 
Bullying and crude threats will achieve little beyond entangling the United States and the region in another senseless war while deepening the two countries’ 40-year estrangement. The United States should strive for an Iran that is stable with a strong middle class and highly educated youths connected to the moderating influence of the outside world. The Iranian people want to restore the friendship between Iran and the United States, two countries that enjoyed 123 years of cordial ties before 1979. But the path to their hearts and minds is not through sanctions and military intervention.
 
It is not too late for this administration to cease demonizing and threatening Iran, and step aside from its maximalist demands. One of Iran’s most renowned poets, Rumi, offers a better way forward: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Iran: On the war that almost happened

This comes in from Stafford Clarry, senior member of the Next Century Foundation in Iraq:

On increasing US-Iran tensions, there are tons of news reports and analytical articles published by credible sources. Attacks against Iran that escalate into full-on war could have unintended and unknown consequences devastating to both sides and beyond.
Iran is neither Iraq nor North Korea. Iran has capacities and capabilities that neither have. In the meantime, everyday Iranians are facing severe hardship. Why, for what?
Regarding the loss of the $100 million-plus drone, Iran has apparently retrieved some debris. Armchair analysis begs questions. Would Iran venture beyond its territorial waters to retrieve drone debris? Doubtful. Would the US venture into Iran’s territorial waters to retrieve drone debris? Doubtful.
Iran said, and the US confirmed, there was a manned P-8 aircraft accompanying the MQ-4C drone. Iran claims they chose not to attempt to destroy the P-8 because there were people on board (35?). The Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft is a modified Boeing 737 designed to operate in conjunction with MQ-4C drone.
Authorization to engage the US Military in hostilities requires Congressional approval. The White House (WH) claims they already have approval under a 2001 authorization.
The Republican Senate majority leader is calling for robust debate in Congress on the WH taking the country to war. Some Republicans strongly oppose war with Iran. Some senior WH staff are advising that attacking Iran would cause disaster for the WH in the 2020 presidential election. Recent WH response defends Iran by trying to assert the drone loss was a miscalculation and a mistake.
Friday evening analyses by PBS NewsHour Shields & Brooks and on Washington Week were very informative as usual. US-Iran tension was the number one topic. On Washington Week, at the end of a spirited discussion, the moderator asked the panel of four seasoned journalists with contacts in the WH, “Are we heading toward war?” Three of the four quickly said “No”.
The fourth reporter worried about what the WH would do if there is another incident. A response: Iran exceeding the limit on uranium enrichment next month is more worrisome.
Uranium enrichment of at least 90% is required for a nuclear weapon, which Iran has never achieved. Under the JCPOA, Iran is allowed 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.7%. It is this allowed quantity that Iran threatens to exceed next month.
In the meantime, everyday Iranians are severely suffering the consequences of sanctions, not terribly unlike how everyday Iraqis suffered 13 years (1990 to 2003) of UN-authorized sanctions that shut down oil exports completely and prohibited UN Member States from trading with Iraq, with the sole exceptions of food and medicines. As the Iranian leadership will not suffer personal hardship due to sanctions, neither did the Iraqi leadership, which continued to build palaces.

Distress and Defiance in Tehran By Salar Abdoh, an Iranian novelist and essayist – The New York Times 21 June 2019

 

TEHRAN — To get around Tehran, nothing beats a motorcycle. It is cheap and fast, and you can break the laws of the gridlocked traffic at will. The motorcycle is the pulse of this city of 15 million. It is a nuisance and necessary. I try to cultivate a special relationship with motorcycle mechanics; without them, Tehran does not move. And when they talk, I listen.
 
Farzad, my motorcycle mechanic who works from a hole-in-the-wall garage in my neighborhood, complained that the price of engine oil had tripled in late May. “The customers think I’m ripping them off,” he said. “I tell them to go to the bazaar and buy the oil themselves if they want, and I’ll change it for them.”
 
On a visit to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan I had bought him a pair of used hiking shoes for about $10. His eyes shone when I gave him the shoes. The pair, if bought in Iran, would have cost around $100 — the equivalent of a month’s wages for a laborer.
 
On Thursday morning, Iran shot down an American surveillance drone. The Americans claimed the drone was in international airspace; the Iranians released competing coordinates, placing it within Iranian territory. On Thursday night, President Trump approved retaliatory strikes on Iran, before pulling back at the last minute. International experts fear that the possibility of war is increasingly real. On the ground in Tehran, this is news to no one.
 
I live on 30 Tir Street in southern Tehran, the beating heart of the city. The labyrinthine Tehran bazaar is a short walk away. There are government ministries, libraries, churches, a functioning synagogue and a Zoroastrian high school nearby.
 
This is the Tehran that would draw visitors, but there are few. The devastating impact of American sanctions is everywhere: The stores are often empty; the restaurants, mostly deserted. On the adjacent Hafez Avenue, a deafening silence pervades the shopping complex specializing in selling mobile phones.
 
One of the few stores on 30 Tir Street that still attracts customers is run by Abbasi, a retired army officer who repairs household gadgets — people cannot afford to buy new stuff. “Well, isn’t this already war?” he asked, without much rancor. It’s a question many Iranians ask themselves these days.
 
Since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions last year, Iran’s oil exports have fallen by more than half, the Iranian rial has lost more than 60 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year and inflation has reached 37 percent. The Iranian economy contracted by 4 percent in 2018 and is expected to contract by 6 percent this year.
 
The sanctions are ultimately about individual lives: a relative’s immunosuppressive meds after a liver transplant suddenly skyrocketing in price and nearly disappearing from the market; a painter of some renown ceasing to practice her craft after 30 years because of the now prohibitive cost of art material; young professionals without jobs leaving Tehran in large numbers to try their luck in smaller, less expensive towns.
 
The price of paper has increased fivefold; the price of car parts, four times. Most fruits have become luxury items, many families can’t afford meat and factories in the provinces are shutting down.
 
When a country like Iran — with the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves and an educated work force — suddenly turns poor, a feeling not unlike embarrassment hangs in the air. Sometimes the reactions can turn comical: “Exclusive sale!” a street vendor shouts near Vanak Square in northern Tehran, “Ladies, I have decided to drop the prices of my tops because of Trump’s bad faith. Mr. Trump and I aim not to please you, but to empty your pockets!”
 
 
The old bazaar in Tehran, Iran.
The old bazaar in Tehran, Iran. Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press
Life in Iran would seem intolerable without the occasional comic relief. The acute awareness of what might have been fills the air like an ache. I remember that momentous summer night in 2015 when President Hassan Rouhani of Iran announced the nuclear deal with President Obama. I joined the tens of thousands celebrating in Tehran.
 
We imagined that a new chapter had opened in Iran’s relationship with the world. After the easing of sanctions, the Iranian economy seemed to make significant strides. According to the Central Bank of Iran, the economy grew 12.5 percent between March 2016 and March 2017. European manufacturers like Peugeot were preparing for major investments.
 
Four years later, the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation wishing to come in from the cold have been destroyed. Iran finds itself at the threshold of war with the United States after having signed a nuclear deal it did not pull out of.
 
Whether you are for or against the Islamic Republic, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most prominent military force of your country, is being labeled a terrorist organization while the channels of economic exchange between your country and others are barred and your major export — oil — is being choked, the ordinary Iranian may be forgiven for thinking that war is just a matter of time.
 
The last time there was a definitive test of wills between Iran and another country was Saddam Hussein’s invasion in the 1980s. Iran, which was completely dependent on Western technology and military ware before the revolution, intensified its efforts during and after the war to develop self-reliance.
 
Members of the generation running the Iranian government and military for the past 30 years came of age during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war. They pushed expertise in asymmetrical warfare and a homegrown mastery of missile, cyber and drone technology because they saw no other way to have a fighting chance in their long struggle against the United States.
 
After President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, the Iranian decision makers were convinced that their strategy — self-sufficient military prowess and strategic depth in the region — was right all along.
 
Sadi Shirazi, the great 13th century Persian writer, has a tale about a king at sea. A member of his retinue who has never seen so much water will not stop wailing and wants to return to land. The king’s adviser has a solution: Throw the man who cannot swim into the water and he will quickly learn the attraction of being on a safe ship.
 
The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran smacks of throwing the country into the sea to bring it to its senses. Except that Iran learned to swim during its war with Iraq. Iran does not recognize the king and doesn’t see the ship as a safe haven. After all, the entity that threw it into the current once can and will do it again.

Iran has ties with Al Qa’eda says Trump – since when?

This comes in from Stafford Clarry, senior member of the Next Century Foundation in Iraq:

Here it comes.  The Trump administration is stressing a link between Iran and Al-Qaeda as a justification to invoke the 2001 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) as authorization to conduct armed conflict against Iran.
 
Indications are the link between Iran and Al-Qaeda is tenuous (weak).
“Lawmakers are wary of officials using links between Iran and Al Qaeda as a pretext for war because the administration of President George W. Bush talked of a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in 2002 to build a case for the invasion of Iraq. There were never close ties between the two.”

The New York Times 19 June 2019
Iran Has Ties to Al Qaeda, Trump Officials Tell Skeptical Congress
WASHINGTON — Administration officials are briefing Congress on what they say are ties between Iran and Al Qaeda, prompting skeptical reactions and concern on Capitol Hill that the White House could invoke the war authorization passed in 2001 as legal cover for military action against Tehran.
 
As tensions between the United States and Iran have surged, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pentagon officials have told members of Congress and aides in recent weeks about what they say is a pattern of ties between Iran and the terrorist group going back to after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.
 
They have stopped short of telling lawmakers or aides in large group settings that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force from Congress, which permits the United States to wage war on Al Qaeda and its allies or offshoots, would allow the Trump administration to go to war with Iran. President Trump has said he does not want a war, but he ordered 2,500 additional troops to the region in the last month in response to what American officials said was a heightened threat.
 
Statements tying Iran and Al Qaeda by Mr. Pompeo and other officials point to the potential for the administration to justify invoking the 2001 authorization, some lawmakers say. And when asked in recent weeks by lawmakers and journalists whether the administration would use the 2001 authorization, Mr. Pompeo has deflected the questions.
 
“They are looking to bootstrap an argument to allow the president to do what he likes without coming to Congress, and they feel the 2001 authorization will allow them to go to war with Iran,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia.
 
Mr. Kaine, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, declined to discuss details of classified briefings, but said senior administration officials had “talked about Iran providing safe haven to Al Qaeda.”
 
Mr. Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former C.I.A. director, visited United States Central Command in Florida on Tuesday to talk about Iran with military commanders as acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan announced his resignation.
 
In a classified briefing that Mr. Pompeo gave on May 21 with Pentagon officials to the full House, “he discussed the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan.
 
She said Mr. Pompeo’s talk of that relationship in both public and private settings and his refusal to answer questions on a potential use of the 2001 authorization “raises the specter that to him, the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda gives the administration that authority.”
 
Ms. Slotkin, a former C.I.A. analyst and Pentagon official who has worked in Iraq, added, “Any of us working on national security should be looking at any talk of ties between senior Iranian leaders and Al Qaeda with a real skeptical eye.”
 
On Monday, two Pentagon officials gave a classified briefing on Iran to legislative aides in which they mentioned Al Qaeda ties, according to a person with direct knowledge of the session.
 
That surprised the aides, who then pressed the officials — Michael P. Mulroy, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East, and a Defense Intelligence Agency representative — on their assertions.
 
The topic was addressed directly at a House hearing on Wednesday by Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida. Mr. Deutch pointedly asked Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, whether the administration was preparing to tell Congress it had approval to go to war with Iran under the 2001 authorization because of ties between Tehran and Al Qaeda.
 
Mr. Hook responded that Congress should ask the department’s legal adviser for an opinion.
 
“We will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers, and we will comply with the law,” he said.
 
Iran is a majority Shiite Muslim nation while Al Qaeda is a hard-line Sunni group whose members generally consider Shiites to be apostates. The two have often fought on opposing sides of regional conflicts, including the Syrian war.
 
Any relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda is one of convenience and not a real alliance, said current and former American officials, and there is no public evidence that Tehran has allowed Al Qaeda operatives to plot attacks on the United States from Iran or offered a haven for large numbers of fighters.
 
Lawmakers are wary of officials using links between Iran and Al Qaeda as a pretext for war because the administration of President George W. Bush talked of a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in 2002 to build a case for the invasion of Iraq. There were never close ties between the two.
 
The question of whether Mr. Trump might strike Iran has intensified since early May, when the White House announced military movements because of what American officials said was new intelligence showing a heightened threat against American interests from Iran or allied militias.
 
Mr. Trump then announced a deployment of 1,500 more troops to the Middle East, and on Monday he said he was sending 1,000 more. The administration has blamed Iran for two sets of oil tanker attacks. Iranian officials said Monday that their country would soon breach limits on uranium enrichment set by a 2015 nuclear deal from which Mr. Trump withdrew more than a year ago.
 
The possibility of war against Iran has invigorated efforts by Democratic and some Republican lawmakers to limit the president’s war powers. On Tuesday, two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, joined with Mr. Kaine and three other senators to send a letter to Mr. Trump saying “Congress has not authorized war with Iran and no current statutory authority allows the U.S. to conduct hostilities against the government of Iran.”
 
Mr. Paul pressed Mr. Pompeo in a Senate committee hearing in April to declare that the administration would not use the 2001 authorization to go to war with Iran. Mr. Pompeo said he preferred to “just leave that to lawyers,” then stressed ties between Al Qaeda and Iran: “There is no doubt there is a connection. Period. Full stop.”
 
On Sunday, Mr. Pompeo refused to answer when he was asked three times on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” whether the administration had the legal authority to attack Iran.
 
In his May 21 classified presentation to the House, Mr. Pompeo went into more detail on the Al Qaeda ties, said Ms. Slotkin and other lawmakers. Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who is an ally of Mr. Trump, said in a committee hearing last week that administration officials made remarks in the classified May briefing that pointed to the idea that the 2001 authorization permitted “hostilities toward Iran.”
 
In a June 13 news conference in which he listed recent attacks “instigated” by Iran, Mr. Pompeo mentioned a suicide car bombing in Kabul that killed four civilians and injured four American service members and a number of bystanders. It was the first time an American official had said Iran was behind the attack, which was aimed at an American convoy, even though the Taliban had claimed responsibility. Iran has generally not commanded attacks against Americans in Afghanistan, unlike in the Iraq War, and analysts and lawmakers — including Mr. Deutch on Wednesday — questioned why Mr. Pompeo is trying to make the link now.
 
After the Sept. 11 attacks and before American forces bombed Afghanistan, more than a dozen senior Al Qaeda members fled to Iran. The circumstances under which they lived there were murky, but some senior officials, including Saif al-Adel, were apparently detained by Iran and later traded in a supposed prisoner swap with a Qaeda branch in Yemen.
 
Terrorism analysts say Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, was in Iran at the time. He is now believed to be in Pakistan or Afghanistan and is considered a rising Qaeda leader. He dislikes Iran because he and his mother were imprisoned for years there, said Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. terrorism investigator.
 
Mr. Al-Adel and other Qaeda officials have had freedom of movement in Iran at times, said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations.
 
The Trump administration might argue that some military strikes against Iran do not require congressional permission. One potential such action would be a bombing of the Natanz nuclear facility, an option debated over the years by American and Israeli military officials.
 
Attorney General William P. Barr also has unusually broad views of a president’s power to unilaterally start even a major war.
 
The long-simmering discussion of presidential war powers in Congress has come to a boil in recent months, with bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both chambers introducing legislation that would place limits on the president.
 
The measures have found some support among moderate Republicans and constitutional conservatives who think the president’s ability to wage war should be limited.
 
At a hearing last week, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said, “I do not believe, for what it’s worth, the 2001 A.U.M.F. authorizes force against the state of Iran.”

A new tanker war in the Middle East?

We are seeing a ratcheting up of the war rhetoric with regard to Iran. US President Donald Trump is indicating he is no longer interested in diplomacy and rapprochement. He tweeted “They are not ready and neither are we” in response to a similarly unhelpful tweet from Iran’s Supreme Leader (see below). There are four state actors capable of and with possible motives for the recent tanker attacks, but in each instance it may be elements who favour war rather than the government per se. They are the UAE, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. If it were indeed Iran (quite possible but by no means certain) it would likely be the most radical element of their military, the Baseej, possibly working with the Supreme Leader’s cognizance but not that of the President. Note with regard to the article that follows below that the incautious threat to close the Straits of Hormuz referred to in the article was by the new head of the Revolutionary Guard and was predicated on an “if”. It was if Iran’s oil exports were completely halted. That has not actually happened yet. Note also that Israel has most to lose and is therefore least likely to be culpable for the recent tanker attacks.

Our senior NCF member Stafford Clarry writes from Iraq as follows: There’s a plethora (abundance) of news reports and opinion articles from credible daily sources instigated by yesterday’s attacks in the Persian Gulf.

Assessments and responses from the US public and institutional sources (thinktanks, knowledgeable and experienced experts and specialists, etc.) have yet to kick in.

One observer notes “the assessment of the United States Government” may not necessarily reflect the assessment of the US intelligence community. It’s happened before.

Robin Wright has been writing for The New Yorker since 1988. She watches Iran closely, written books and numerous articles on Iran, and apparently has good contacts in the US Government and among the Iranian leadership. Here is her take on yesterday’s events:

The New Yorker
13 June 2019
https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/a-tanker-war-in-the-middle-eastagain

A Tanker War in the Middle East—Again?
By Robin Wright

U.S. Navy ships in the Middle East heard the first distress signal at 6:12 A.M. Thursday. The Kokuka Courageous, a tanker owned by Japan and bound from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, had been damaged by an explosive device. A fire raged in its engine room. The crew was abandoning ship. A second distress signal came in at 7 A.M. The Front Altair, a Norwegian-owned tanker bound from the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan, had also been hit. It, too, was ablaze. The fallout was fast—and furious. Within hours, oil prices rose four per cent. The U.S. Navy went to provide aid and investigate the attacks. The U.N. Security Council called for immediate consultations to prevent yet another Middle East conflict. Two tanker companies suspended new bookings to the oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. And, amid already escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, the blame game began.

In Washington, the Trump Administration charged that Iran was responsible for the two attacks on Thursday, and also attacks on four other tankers, on May 12th. All six ships were struck in the Gulf of Oman, the body of water between Oman and Iran, just beyond the Strait of Hormuz. “This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.

The Administration provided no specific intelligence about why it believed that Iran was responsible for Thursday’s incidents or the attacks in May. On Thursday, the U.S. reportedly spotted an unexploded limpet mine near one of the stricken ships. Both tankers were hit “at or below the waterline, in close proximity to the engine room while underway,” the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners reported. “These appeared to be well-planned and coordinated.”

In Tehran, the Islamic Republic denied responsibility. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.” He noted that the attacks on a Japanese-owned tanker occurred while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “for extensive and friendly talks.” Abe had made the first visit by a Japanese Prime Minister since the 1979 Revolution, to carry a message from President Trump, who visited Tokyo last month. Zarif added, “Iran’s proposed Regional Dialogue Forum is imperative” to defuse tensions between the Islamic Republic and the Gulf sheikhdoms.

Some experts suggested that both countries share some blame, with the world shouldering the costs. “If Iran is the culprit, the Trump Administration has only itself to blame for pushing Tehran to take aggressive steps that it has eschewed since the worst days of the Iran-Iraq War,” Ali Vaez, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran program, told me. “If Iran wasn’t behind it, it’s being framed by those who want to see a war between Iran and the U.S.” Rising tensions in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, he added, “are bound to increase the risk premium on global energy prices.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is fretting. “We are just about as close to a conflict without there being an actual armed conflict, so the tensions are very high,” Jakob P. Larsen, the head of maritime security for the BIMCO shipping-group association, told the Associated Press. BIMCO represents about sixty per cent of the world’s merchant fleet, including the owners of the two tankers that were damaged on Thursday. Roughly a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade goes through the Strait of Hormuz.

European governments issued urgent warnings about the dangers of conflict in the Gulf region. Germany, one of the biggest proponents of the 2015 nuclear-nonproliferation deal, called the incident “extremely worrying.” But Russia cautioned against leaping to attach blame. “Lately we have been seeing a strengthening campaign of political, psychological, and military pressure on Iran. We wouldn’t want the events that have just happened, which are tragic and shook the world oil market, to be used speculatively to further aggravate the situation in an anti-Iranian sense,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

But the Trump Administration charged that Thursday’s twin tanker attacks reflect a broader pattern of recent provocations by Iran that “should be understood in the context of forty years of unprovoked aggression against freedom-loving nations,” Pompeo said. On April 22nd, the Islamic Republic pledged that it would interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz if Washington’s “maximum-pressure campaign” blocked all Iranian exports. “It is now working to execute on that promise,” Pompeo said. In May, the Revolutionary Guards attempted to deploy dhows capable of launching missiles. Tehran was also tied, through a proxy militia in Yemen, to an attack, on May 14th, on two strategic oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia and a missile strike, on Wednesday, on the arrivals terminal of the kingdom’s Abha International Airport, Pompeo claimed. Twenty-six people were injured in the airport strike. The Administration has also alleged that Iran, through its allies, was connected to a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on May 19th and a car bomb in Afghanistan on May 31st that wounded four U.S. service members.

“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” Pompeo said.

Tensions in the Gulf are an eerie echo of the tanker war that erupted in the late eighties during the eight-year conflict between Iraq and Iran. The tanker war was launched in 1984, when Iraq attacked Iran’s oil terminal and oil tankers at Kharg Island, in the northern Persian Gulf. Iran responded by striking tankers—initially from Kuwait and later from other nations—that ferried Iraqi oil. In 1987, as the tanker war threatened to disrupt global oil supplies, the Reagan Administration intervened. It re-registered Kuwaiti ships under the American flag, which allowed the U.S. Navy to provide military protection. Operation Earnest Will became the largest U.S. naval convoy operation since the Second World War. It included carrier battle groups from the Navy, Air Force AWACS surveillance planes, and U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. At one point, some thirty ships were deployed to escort tankers from the volatile Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.

The U.S. intervention to protect tankers also led to direct military action with Iran. In September, 1987, U.S. aircraft spotted the Iran Ajr pushing mines into Gulf waters. Helicopter gunships opened fire. By the time the attack was over, four Iranian sailors were dead, the rest of the crew had abandoned ship (and were picked up by the U.S. Navy), and the ship was scuttled.

The timing of the U.S. attack was particularly painful for Iran. Khamenei, who was then Iran’s President, was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly—the first visit by a top revolutionary leader since the 1979 upheaval that overthrew the shah. His trip followed the first covert contacts between Washington and Tehran in what became known as the arms-for-hostage swap during the Reagan Administration. In 1986, top White House officials led a secret mission to Iran. Although that diplomacy collapsed, Khamenei’s trip in 1987 was designed to signal Tehran’s willingness to engage with the world. Instead, the visit was overtaken by Iran’s mining misadventure.

“It was a peaceful merchant ship,” the Iranian President insisted, at a breakfast that I attended with a small group of journalists. “This is the beginning of a series of events, the bitter consequences of which will not be restricted to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. shall receive a proper response for this abominable act. Today, it is we who receive the dead bodies of our sons. But if, God forbid, the day comes when you will receive the dead bodies of your sons, people will say, ‘Why didn’t you stop it?’ ”

Over the years, Iranian officials have repeatedly told me that the humiliating experience in New York was formative to Khamenei’s thinking about the United States. He has long held that the U.S. attack on the Iran Ajr was designed to undermine his U.N. speech—and him personally. Two years later, Khamenei was selected as the Islamic Republic’s second Supreme Leader, a position he has held for three decades. He has frequently said at public events that the United States can’t be trusted, and he said it again after his meeting with Abe on Thursday. “You said Mr. @abeshinzo, that Trump has said negotiations with the U.S. would lead to Iran’s progress,” the Supreme Leader tweeted on his English-language account. “By the Grace of God, without negotiations & despite sanctions, we will progress.”

In an ominous sign for the prospects of diplomacy deëscalating the Gulf crisis anytime soon, Trump responded with his own tweet. “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal,” he wrote. “They are not ready, and neither are we.”

US-Iran confrontation: noisy, peaked, and declining

This comes in from our friend and NCF member, Stafford Clarry, in Iraq: Indications are the noisy media build-up about US military conflict with Iran has peaked and is now in rapid decline.

There are many interesting responses to the noise. Some talk of Mattis-Tillerson-McMaster being the “guardrail” who kept Trump on the straight and narrow. The latest talk is that Trump is the guardrail keeping Bolton on the straight and narrow. (Trump: “You think I’m crazy! This guy (Bolton) is really nuts!)

Some talk of Bolton getting “too far out in front” of Trump, as Steve Bannon did, and may not last as National Security Advisor (NSA).

Three The Atlantic articles elaborate on why armed conflict with Iran is a resounding negative unlikely to occur.

The US Military and national intelligence consensus are strongly against armed conflict with Iran. They say it would be devastating and destabilizing on all sides. Further, Trump is said to be adverse to additional US Military involvement in the Middle East and has aimed toward troop withdrawal, as in Syria.

Here are is another very short clip that discusses the US-Iran armed confrontation issue: