European governments may believe Iran is to blame for the attacks this week on fuel tankers in the Gulf of Oman, but their distrust of the Trump administration and its hawkish policy toward Tehran have led them to measure their words and call for de-escalation and “maximum restraint.”
Mindful of Washington’s exaggerations and outright misrepresentations of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, European leaders are asking the Trump administration for hard evidence. The last thing they want is to be asked to support another American war in the Middle East that would be highly unpopular with voters.
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Europeans are no fans of the Iranian government or its policies in the Middle East, but they are concerned by what they see as the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran — thus their use of maximum restraint. Many critics believe Mr. Trump is succeeding only in creating maximum pressure among hard-line factions in Iran to respond with carefully calibrated attacks that send a message, like those against tankers in a vital passageway for global oil supplies.
Germany wants a careful investigation of the attacks, insisting that “a spiral of escalation must be avoided.” The European Union, in the words of the spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic, has “said repeatedly that the region doesn’t need further escalation, it doesn’t need further destabilization, it doesn’t need further tension.”
Ms. Kocijancic said that European foreign ministers would discuss Iran and other issues at a regular meeting on Monday.
European governments — with the possible exception of Britain — are wary about blaming Iran. They are reluctant to accept the White House’s claims at face value, and do not want to provide Washington with any pretext for war.
Europeans are publicly unhappy with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal and to reimpose harsh economic sanctions on Iran, including shutting down most of its oil exports. They have continued to support the deal and are trying to ensure that Iran stays within its limits, to avoid tougher sanctions or an act that Israel or the United States would see as justification for war.
More broadly, they are troubled by “the sheer unpredictability of American policy toward Iran,” said Ian Lesser, a former American official who now runs the Brussels headquarters of the German Marshall Fund. “These events are against a backdrop of longstanding anxiety about U.S. policy toward Iran and its aims. When pressed, Europeans are mostly on the same page with Washington about Iran’s behavior. But the difference is over policy, and there is a basic lack of confidence in the discourse with Washington.”
These kinds of attacks are what Europeans predicted when Mr. Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Most European governments are surprised how long Iran has played the strategic patience card, especially after the increase in American sanctions in November,” she said.
Assuming Iran is behind these attacks, which is not yet certain, she said, “We’ll keep seeing cycles of this escalation, designed to make everyone in the region nervous.” What worries Europeans, she said, is “the likelihood of missteps, miscalculations.”
The Iranians, having lived with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, think they understand “the red buttons,” Ms. Geranmayeh said. “But they also need to send signals that the oil embargo is unacceptable, and they need to make Trump realize this, so you do it through rising oil prices and getting his base nervous about another Mideast war in the run-up to the election. But Iranians could get it wrong.”
Nathalie Tocci, a senior adviser to the European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said, “Before we blame someone, we need credible evidence.” Iranians are deeply rational actors, she said. And for Iran to have attacked a Japanese ship when the Japanese prime minister was in Tehran “is not an especially rational thing to do.”
Ms. Tocci also said that Washington’s policy was having the predictable effect of weakening moderates in Iran and strengthening the hand of hard-liners. As the United States escalates, she said, “the people we work with in Iran are becoming weaker by the day, so we can’t expect retaliatory measures not to take place.”
What Europe does not want is Iran breaking the limits of the nuclear deal, which could force Europeans to reimpose their own sanctions.
The Pentagon, United States Central Command and American intelligence agencies all predicted attacks on shipping — sparing American targets and causing no loss of life — as a response to increased American pressure, said Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official who is now deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran followed a similar policy in the 1980s, in the context of the Iran-Iraq war, when Washington backed Iraq and United States and British warships escorted tankers through dangerous waters.
“There’s a lot of suspicion in Europe about American motives,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst. “The maritime milieu is especially susceptible to manipulation — remember the Gulf of Tonkin,” a dubious report of naval hostilities that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to escalate the war in Vietnam. And then, he said, are the bitter memories of the Iraq war, which was based on faulty intelligence and badly split Europe.
Those suspicions only deepened Friday, when Japanese shipping executives insisted that their tanker was hit not by a mine, as American officials had implied, but by a “flying object.”
Mr. Heisbourg said there are several potential beneficiaries from the attacks, among them Washington hard-liners like the national security adviser, John R. Bolton; “wild ones in Saudi Arabia or in the Emirates or the Revolutionary Guards in Iran”; or anyone who wants higher oil prices.
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But what worries many is that Tehran might misjudge Mr. Trump’s stated unwillingness to go to war. “This may lead Iran to miscalculate,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “It may well be that they attacked the tankers because they don’t think America will retaliate.”
That leaves Europeans wondering where the Americans are pushing them.
“As the stakes rise, public opinion will become more important,,” Mr. Heisbourg said, “And European public opinion won’t be favorable to doing anything militarily with Mr. Trump.”