When a US Secretary of State is as swift and unequivocal as Mike Pompeo was in blaming Iran for brazen attacks on two fuel tankers in the Gulf of Oman, he begs an equally blunt question.
What is the United States going to do about it?
Just over 12 hours after reports broke in slumbering Washington about the new crisis, Pompeo appeared in the State Department Briefing Room to significantly raise the stakes.
“It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today,” Pompeo said.
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He cited intelligence, weapons used, the required expertise and sophistication of the assault and previous attacks to conclude it was the latest assault by Iran on “freedom-loving nations.”
Pompeo offered no evidence for his accusations. He did not allow questions so journalists could challenge his assertions. And his decision not to allow a few days to elapse for a full investigation left no doubt about US intentions.
He left the room after warning the “United States will defend its forces, interests, and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability.”
Later on Thursday night, US Central Command released a video that it claims shows a smaller Iranian boat sailing up next to the tanker to remove an unexploded mine. An individual stands up on the bow of the boat and can be seen removing an object from the tanker’s hull. The US says that object is likely an unexploded mine.
Pompeo’s approach will do nothing to quell anxiety that the United States and Iran are locked into an inexorable cycle of escalation that could trigger a disastrous war.
And after placing the prestige of the Trump administration on the line, he left open the question of Washington’s next steps in dealing with a crisis that caused an immediate spike in oil prices and has few obvious off ramps.
US piling pressure on Iran
Thursday’s drama in which two ships were left ablaze forcing their crews to abandon their posts, was not an isolated incident. It’s a product of rising tensions that Trump administration critics see as the logical result of a hardline approach heralded when the President pulled out of the international nuclear deal concluded by the Obama White House.
Washington insists its new strategy of economic and political pressure on Iran is aimed at driving the Islamic Republic back to the negotiating table. But many US allies fear it is more likely to lead to a military confrontation.
Apart from Pompeo’s swift warning to Iran over the attacks and the CENTCOM video, there has not yet been any independent international assessment that blames Iran or its proxies for the attacks — though suspicion is hanging heavy on the Islamic Republic.
The Trump administration’s documented record of perpetrating falsehoods means it inevitably faces a higher bar for its statements on an issue as critical as Iran. Memories are also still fresh of botched intelligence that led the US into war with Iraq.
There are no signs so far that Washington is preparing a military response to the tanker attacks. It is more likely to use them to bolster its case for Iranian malfeasance.
But it has the option to increase naval patrols in the area. Trump has already rushed an aircraft carrier strike force to the region and is deploying 1,500 troops and a Patriot missile system to meet Iran’s perceived threat.
The US also called a UN Security Council meeting on the tanker strikes on Thursday but did not present any evidence to back up Pompeo’s remarks.
Uncertainty about what is next is also being fueled by indications that Trump is not on the same page as senior members of his national security team on Iran.
The President, loath to get pulled into foreign misadventures, is seen as far less hawkish on the issue than Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton.
Shortly after Pompeo spelled out his stern-faced warning, which Trump tweeted out, the President was still holding out the hope of eventual talks with Iran.
“I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!” Trump tweeted.
Iran will never be ready, if remarks carried by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Twitter feed on Thursday are any indication.
“I don’t consider Trump as a person deserving to exchange messages with; I have no response for him & will not answer him,” Khamenei wrote.
Fog of war hangs over tanker attacks
The question of who is behind Thursday’s attacks may not be quite as clear cut elsewhere as it is in Washington.
The fog of war in the region, with its bitter rivalries, opaque motivations and boiling tensions means that there are a number of conceivable explanations for the strike.
If Iran was involved, it might have been sending a pointed message to the US that it has the capacity to hold the world economy to ransom by attacking shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
One of the ships involved was a Japanese tanker, in an embarrassment to one of Trump’s closest allies, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who was in Tehran hoping to broker an easing of tensions.
One way of looking at the targeting of a Japanese tanker would be to conclude that someone wants to send Trump a message that his vows to protect US allies are empty.
But if Iran hoped to use Abe’s visit to convince Japan to resume buying its oil despite US pressure it would not make much sense for the government to order an attack on a Japanese owned ship.
But decision making in Iran is not monolithic. Even if Iranian forces or proxies were to blame, the action may not have been ordered by political leaders in Tehran, who are locked in a constant power struggle with the ruling clerics.
And Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has in some cases the autonomy to act outside the auspices of the country’s religious or political authorities.
The Middle East’s thriving conspiracy theory industry also means there are alternative rationales for the attacks. Might an Iranian foe like Saudi Arabia, keen for a US-Iranian confrontation, not have an interest in staging such an attack to reflect badly on Tehran?
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“Reported attacks on Japan-related tankers occurred while PM @AbeShinzo was meeting with Ayatollah @khamenei-ir for extensive and friendly talks,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Thursday.
“Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.”
The tanker attacks came a month after the previous peak in recent tensions, after four commercial ships were attacked in the Gulf, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked a Saudi pipeline and they US pulled non-essential staff from its embassy in Baghdad — a potential target for pro-Iran militias in Iraq.
The fact that this attack was more sophisticated and expansive than the previous one is sobering. And will fuel concerns that the US and Iran are on track to recreate the proxy warfare in the Gulf of the 1980s that several times spilled out of control.