This had to happen. The Obama administration, along with Russia and China and the major European nations, had worked out that nuclear deal with Iran. For at least ten years, with a possible extension, Iran would stop their nuclear weapons work, and allow everyone in to see that they had. The joint agreement did not address Iran’s support of groups that have made no end of trouble for Israel and Saudi Arabia, or address anything that had to do with missile technology. It was a narrow agreement. No nukes – the rest can be worked out in other possible agreements. The nine nations slowly lifted sanctions on Iran and started doing business with them, and continue doing business there. The United States returned all the Iranian money we had seized over all the years and had been holding in escrow. And it worked. Iran stopped their nuclear weapons programs. All the independent inspectors verified that. Our state department certified that Iran was in compliance with the agreement.
And then Obama was gone. Donald Trump pulled the United States out that multinational agreement, because it was a terrible deal. Iran could still build missiles. Iran could still support all sorts of nasty groups in foreign lands. Iran still hated Israel and the Israelis. Iran still hated Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunnis. Obama’s stupid deal did not address any of that. Trump could do far better – so it was massive new sanctions on everything Iranian. We’d shut down all trade with them. We’d ruin them, and we’d ruin any other nations that were a part of this.
The new punishment would be gruesome. Their pain would be intense. Their pain would be so intense that they’d give in and agree to anything. Trump would show Obama how it’s done. Trump would show all those other nations what fools they had been to follow Obama’s lead on any of this. And the Israelis would love us, as would the Saudis. This would be Trump’s triumph.
And now this just isn’t working:
The Trump administration began an urgent debate on Friday over how to respond to what officials say has grown into a shadow war with Iran, after attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf that appeared meant to assert Iranian control over one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes at a time of heightened tension with the United States.
President Trump put Iran on notice that the United States would push back but offered no details and suggested that he was ready to engage with the Iranians, who denied responsibility for the attacks, whenever they are prepared to talk.
But tension remained high, with a senior official confirming that Iran had fired a surface-to-air missile on Thursday at an American drone flying over the Gulf of Oman, where the attacks on the tankers occurred. The episode took place early that morning, between the distress calls from the two ships crippled by explosions that day.
Officials at the Pentagon weighed tactical responses to the attacks, like beefing up the security around tankers, or more drastic moves, like deploying as many as 6,000 additional Navy, Air Force and Army personnel to the Persian Gulf.
Now we have to do something. It seems that Iran doesn’t want to be ruined, as this New York Times account tells the tale:
One of the two tankers hit by the explosions on Thursday, the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, was being towed into a port in the United Arab Emirates for further inspection into how the attack was carried out and with what kind of weapon. The Navy dispatched a bomb squad team to investigate.
The other tanker, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, remained adrift, on fire and abandoned by its crew after Iranian patrol boats chased off civilian tugs that had come to tow it to port.
Mr. Trump, citing a grainy, black-and-white American military video of a small boat filled with sailors at the side of one of the stricken tankers, declared that there was no doubt that Iran was behind the attacks. One of the mines, he said, had “Iran written all over it.”
Yeah, well, he says lots of things:
Germany’s foreign minister said the video was “not enough” to determine conclusively that Iran had carried out the attacks, a position echoed by Norway’s government, and the European Union cautioned against further escalation. The Japanese owner of the Courageous questioned accounts that the ship had been damaged by a mine or mines, saying it had been struck by a flying object.
This put Trump in an awkward spot:
Their skepticism reflected a deeper distrust of an American administration that has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, spurning its European allies and sowing suspicion that the United States is spoiling for a fight with Iran.
With the flurry of questions about Iran’s motives and the United States’ intelligence, even the president appeared to be treading carefully. While he said the United States would not allow Iran to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a key transit point for oil shipments, Mr. Trump insisted he was not looking for war. He even reopened the door to some kind of engagement with the Iranian leadership.
“I’m ready when they are,” Mr. Trump said in a telephone interview on Friday with “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning program.
He doesn’t want war. Talk is fine with him. Talk is fine except that he hired the wrong people last year:
Mr. Trump’s remarks were more cautious than those of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a day earlier, and they captured a tension in the administration. The president has signaled a desire to reduce American involvement in wars and engage in diplomacy even as he has taken aggressive positions in confronting rivals like Iran. His more hardline advisers, including Mr. Pompeo and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, are pushing for the United States to tighten the pressure.
Iran knows what is going on here:
Iran accused the United States and its allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, of seizing on the attacks to “sabotage diplomacy” as it waged economic warfare on the country. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said on Friday on Twitter that the United States accused Iran without “a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.”
The United States needs none:
Mr. Pompeo said on Thursday that any perpetrator would have needed a high level of expertise to carry out the attacks. Yet the video depicts a curiously haphazard operation, with an ill-advised placement of the mine on the ship, careless safety procedures to remove it and little effort to hide the activity.
There is that, but our government senses a strategy here:
American intelligence agencies believe Iran wants to use covert attacks on shipping to drive up the price of oil. That is aimed at hurting Mr. Trump, who has tweeted about high oil prices. Iran’s own oil exports are under pressure by American sanctions, and Tehran is hoping to squeeze as much money out of the limited crude it can sell, a goal that would be advanced if oil prices are driven higher by uncertainty about shipments through the gulf.
Oil prices rose briefly after Thursday’s attacks, although trade tensions with China continue to pressure prices downward. Over time, analysts said, Iran may be trying to push up prices by raising insurance premiums on tankers in making their voyages more treacherous.
That’s one theory, but this is not 2003 in New York:
On Friday, Jonathan Cohen, the acting American ambassador to the United Nations, discussed the situation with Iran with members of the Security Council.
Diplomats said an international antipiracy mission off the coast of Somalia could be a model for the Persian Gulf and the Gulf or Oman, where the attacks occurred. Winning Chinese support for such an operation would be vital, according to some American diplomats. In the past, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has taken part in antipiracy operations, including off the coast of Somalia.
The United States, however, faces steep hurdles in persuading a skeptical international community. Some in Europe believe that the administration’s disavowal of the nuclear deal, brokered by President Barack Obama, is responsible for recent tension. They are also wary that any American accusation against Iran is meant to drive the West toward war.
Been there – done that – got the t-shirt – so same deal – no deal this time either.
Peter Baker explains why:
To President Trump, the question of culpability in the explosions that crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman is no question at all…The question is whether the writing is clear to everyone else. For any president, accusing another country of an act of war presents an enormous challenge to overcome skepticism at home and abroad. But for a president known for falsehoods and crisis-churning bombast, the test of credibility appears far more daunting.
That may be an understatement:
For two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said “he’s a liar” and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.
And that’s the problem now:
In no other circumstance is faith in a president’s word as vital as in matters of war and peace. The public grew cynical about presidents and intelligence after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on false accusations of weapons of mass destruction, and the doubt spilled over to Barack Obama when he accused Syria of gassing its own people. As Mr. Trump confronts Iran, he carries the burden of their history and his own.
“The problem is twofold for them,” said John E. McLaughlin, a deputy CIA director during the Iraq war. “One is people will always rightly question intelligence because it’s not an exact science. But the most important problem for them is their own credibility and contradictions.”
Now add this:
The task is all the more formidable for Mr. Trump, who himself has assailed the reliability of America’s intelligence agencies and even the intelligence chiefs he appointed, suggesting they could not be believed when their conclusions have not fit his worldview…
At one point shortly before taking the oath of office, he compared intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany and ever since has cast doubt on their findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. This year, he repudiated his intelligence chiefs for their assessments of issues like Iran, declaring that “they are wrong” and “should go back to school.” And just this week, he rebuked the CIA for using a brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as an informant, saying, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”
He knows best. He always knows best. But everyone knows him now:
“Trump’s credibility is about as solid as a snake oil salesman,” said Jen Psaki, who was the White House communications director and top State Department spokeswoman under Mr. Obama. “That may work for selling his particular brand to his political base, but during serious times, it leaves him without a wealth of good will and trust from the public that what he is saying is true even on an issue as serious as Iran’s complicity in the tanker explosions.”
And the Washington Post reports that Congress may know him now too:
Fears that President Trump could be laying the groundwork for a war with Iran are fueling a wave of congressional initiatives to restrain him, but significant political hurdles could complicate lawmakers’ chances of success.
Most of the backlash has been driven by Democrats wary of Trump’s moves to spurn Tehran – such as ripping up a nuclear deal and labeling the country’s elite military unit as a terrorist group – while he declares an emergency to expedite arms sales to its regional nemesis Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its continued attacks on civilians in Yemen’s civil war.
A cadre of Republicans – including Sens. Todd C. Young (Ind.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a Trump ally – have joined the clamor to limit the president’s authority, inspired by what they see as end runs around Congress that could exacerbate regional instability, even if they otherwise support Trump’s stance against Iran.
And they have a plan:
As soon as Tuesday, senators could maneuver to block up to 22 arms deals, most of them benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that the administration last month invoked emergency authority to complete, over congressional objections. It is unlikely, however, that all 22 disapproval resolutions will receive a vote on the floor — not least because another potential vehicle for thwarting the move is due for consideration.
Senate leaders plan to tackle their chamber’s version of the annual defense bill before the end of June. The $750 billion authorization bill is one of the few must-pass measures Congress considers in a given year – and is prize territory for opponents of Trump’s arms sales and Iran policy to attach measures seeking to constrain him.
Democratic senators are planning amendments to limit the president’s emergency authority when it comes to concluding arms sales. In theory, the move has at least some Republican support – including from Graham. They also are pushing for an amendment prohibiting federal funds from being used for military operations against Iran unless the administration has first obtained express authorization from Congress to conduct such hostilities.
None of that may make it through congress, but this a start. The president is a problem, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan shows that:
If Iran did attack two tankers in the Gulf of Oman this week, as President Donald Trump claims, he’s doing a lousy job of making that case to the rest of the world.
The sad fact is he has to make a case because, in his 2½ years in office, he has told so many lies and alienated so many allies. If he decided to respond to the attacks with new economic pressure or military action, he would need the support of those allies, and to earn that support, he would need to present extraordinarily persuasive evidence of Iran’s culpability.
He has not yet produced that evidence.
He presented something else instead:
It was an egregious mistake to let Secretary of State Mike Pompeo make the initial accusation against Iran. First, Pompeo is on record as supporting regime change in Tehran; for him to come forth – instead of a more relevant figure, such as the secretary of defense or the director of national intelligence – infuses the charge with bias.
Second, the language Pompeo used was less than compelling. “It is the assessment by the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks,” he said on Thursday. “The 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 sources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”
Really? Kaplan senses bullshit:
Among several things missing here is the level of confidence in the assessment. The omission is unusual and possibly, for that reason, telling. When US intelligence agencies first analyzed the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee in the spring of 2016, for example, they concluded with “high confidence” that Russia was the culprit. When chemical weapons were fired in Syria in April 2017, Trump’s secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, said U.S. intelligence had “a very high level of confidence” that the weapon used was sarin nerve gas and that the attack was ordered by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that he’d personally reviewed the intelligence and had “no doubt” that the Syrian regime was responsible.
On Friday, the Pentagon released fuzzy video footage of sailors on a small boat removing an object from the side of a ship. Officials said that the small boat belonged to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the object was an unexploded mine, and the ship was one of the two tankers that were attacked.
That was it? But then there was a bit more:
It is also, at the very least, strange that the attack on the Japanese tanker came as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Would Khamenei have met with Abe, in what was described as a peace-seeking session, knowing that one of his military units was about to attack a tanker flying a Japanese flag?
And then there’s the matter of mixed messages:
On Friday, in a statement about the tanker attacks, a spokesman for Central Command – which oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia – emphasized, “We have no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community.”
The question is what Trump thinks and to what extent he’s prone to resist, or fall prey to, the pressures of escalation brought on by these attacks and the ensuing tensions.
That’s still an open question:
Trump has said he doesn’t want war with Iran. He recently told reporters he wanted the Iranian leaders to call him; he even gave his phone number to Swiss officials, who have served as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran in past eras of tension. When Abe saw Khamenei in Iran, he handed him a letter from Trump. (Khamenei told Abe he had no interest in any message from the current occupant of the White House.)
Who knows what will happen next? We don’t really know what happened this week. The people around Trump are pushing for punishment and retaliation. Such pressures can unleash the logic of escalation, unless someone steps in to stop it. This isn’t the most hopeful thing to say, but that someone probably has to be Trump.
Don’t expect that. Christopher Dickey explains why:
Does Trump want war with Iran? There’s no question Israel’s belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s blood-soaked Mohammed bin Salman, both of them Trump buddies, would like to see the U.S. beat the hell out of the mullahs. They’re ready to fight to the last American. And National Security Advisor John Bolton seems about as hysterically belligerent as Henry Hawk in the old Looney Toons cartoons. But he is also a skilled backroom warmonger, playing a game with sanctions and waivers on Iranian trade calculated to dispirit and infuriate the Tehran regime – perhaps provoking it to cross a fatal red line.
Trump, on the other hand, likes to talk tough but that doesn’t mean he wants to get into a shooting war of any kind. His entire focus is on the 2020 elections, and he knows his base likes the fiery rhetoric, as long as nobody is firing back at American soldiers on the ground.
Is there a way out of a wider confrontation and conflagration? For the moment, Trump is saying he wants to talk and Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is saying that’s not going to happen.
Trump was going to show Obama how it’s done. This will not end well.