U.S. and Iran need to pull back from the brink of war

The escalating conflict between the United States and Iran took a regrettable — if not entirely unexpected — turn on Monday with the announcement from Tehran that the Persian Gulf nation will exceed the limit on its enriched uranium stockpile imposed by the 2015 multi-nation nuclear deal. President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action one year ago, and U.S.-Iran relations have only worsened since then with the U.S. stiffening sanctions against Iran last fall, Islamic Revolutionary Guard patrol boats allegedly attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and Iran continuing to finance acts of terror through proxy forces.

Had the Trump administration formulated contingency plans for this spiraling conflict when it made its unilateral decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement that its own intelligence agencies agreed had so far proven effective? Given President Trump’s propensity for seat-of-the-pants foreign policy, disdain for all things connected to his predecessor and disinterest in diplomacy, particularly that kind coordinated with European allies, the almost-certain answer to that question is: no. And now the administration is caught in a credibility problem of its own making. Even some allies are skeptical that the latest attack against two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz can be blamed on Iran, at least not as definitively as Secretary of State Mike “There is no doubt” Pompeo observed on the Sunday TV talk shows. Why? Surely because some countries don’t want the conflict to escalate but also because the Trump administration has demonstrated over and over again a wanton disregard for the truth.

Make no mistake, Iran’s potential departure from the nuclear agreement is a serious threat to world peace — and that nation’s future. This isn’t the first time Iran has made this threat (nor would it necessarily bring that country to weapons-grade enrichment, at least not yet) but on the heels of the tanker attack it now seems like an extremely hostile act. Or at least behavior that is likely to stir the United States into military action. On Sunday, Tom Cotton, the far right GOP senator from Arkansas, was already calling for retaliatory strikes against Iran in the wake of the tanker attacks. Surely, more belligerent talk from Tehran is only going to amp up the volume.

What a lousy time for the U.S. to have credibility problems. And while it’s hard to believe that anyone but Iran was responsible for the explosions in the Gulf of Oman, the video that purports to show Iranians removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers is hardly proof. And given Japan’s skepticism (owners of the damaged Japanese tanker blamed “flying objects” observed by the ship’s crew), the U.S. would be wise to look before it leaps any further and have intelligence agencies assemble a comprehensive report on the incident, as well as on the handful of other recent attacks in the Gulf, and brief Congress and the United Nations Security Council on its findings before reaching any decision on whether to rain down ordnance on Iranian targets. Of course, it would also be nice if such actions were pursued in concert with U.S. allies, but one wonders whether an administration where Secretary Pompeo (who seldom overlooks a chance to describe Iran as the Islamic Republic of Iran) and equally hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton call the shots is capable of such restraint.

President Trump has backed off from potential military interventions before. His war of words with North Korea’s dictator seemed to end quickly when a chance for a photo op presented itself. But for a variety of reasons Iran is unlikely to follow that script. Might President Trump be willing to “blink” and ease concessions in return for jump-starting negotiations? Might the U.S. save the nuclear deal by rejoining it? Both are possible but remain uncertain. The Trump administration may lack a clear strategy for dealing with Iran other than asserting “maximum pressure,” but an armed conflict where U.S. service men and women are put in harm’s way (not to mention civilians and perhaps even diplomats, given Iran’s history) seems infinitely worse. When push comes to shove, Mr. Trump may recognize that Barack Obama had the right idea after all in pursuing a coordinated, broadly supported strategy with both carrots and sticks. There’s no shame in returning to sanity.

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