Mixed signals from U.S. amid flaring tensions with Iran

Officials arrive at a summit of Arab and Muslim leaders May 30 in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia; at right is Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
(Saudi Press Agency)

With tensions flaring between Washington and Tehran, Trump administration officials on Thursday were broadcasting mixed signals about the road ahead with the Islamic Republic, even as Iran’s regional foes plotted ways to further isolate it.

Iran’s principal Arabic rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, gathering at a summit in the holy city of Mecca, blamed Tehran for recent attacks on a Saudi pipeline and several oil tankers. In the incidents, explosives — transported possibly by floating mines and drones — did minor damage and claimed no casualties.

The attacks must be confronted “with strength and firmness,” Ibrahim Assaf, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, said ahead of the two-day “emergency” meeting called to discuss Iran.

At the same time, President Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, who has been crisscrossing the region, said that possibly as early as next week he would present evidence to the United Nations Security Council demonstrating Iran’s guilt in the attacks. Thus far, the Trump administration has refused to reveal proof that Iran executed the attacks or was planning more.


Bolton, who has long advocated “regime change” in Tehran, warned that if Iran or its “proxy” armies, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen, damage U.S. assets in the Persian Gulf or vicinity, retaliation would be fierce.

“I don’t think this threat is over,” Bolton told reporters Thursday in London, where he was making arrangements for Trump’s state visit next week. “But I do think you can make at least a conditional claim that the quick response and the deployment and other steps that we took did serve as a deterrent.”

In the days before and after the attacks, the United States moved into the region an aircraft carrier strike group, B-52 bombers, Patriot missile batteries and 900 troops. Another 600 troops already stationed in the area were ordered to remain beyond the end of their deployment.

“I don’t think anybody who is familiar with the situation in the region, whether they have examined the evidence or not, thinks anything other than that these attacks were carried out by Iran or their surrogates,” Bolton said.

“It’s important that the leadership in Iran knows that we know,” he said.

In contrast to Bolton’s bellicose comments, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has hinted at a diplomatic effort to ease tensions. This comes after Trump, in a reversal, said this week that he would be willing to negotiate with Iran.

Pompeo traveled Thursday to Switzerland and Germany amid speculation he might pursue back-channel communications with Iran.

The Swiss government has handled U.S. interests in Tehran since the breakdown in diplomatic ties over the 1979 Iranian Revolution and seizing of American hostages. Germany also has friendly ties with Iran.

Still, Pompeo is insisting on 12 demands that he made to Iran last year, several of which would require a fundamental change in Iranian policy, such as the end of financial support to groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon and a shift from its conservative theocratic system.

“We do not want a war with Iran,” Pompeo’s spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said ahead of Thursday’s trip. “We want to deescalate with Iran.”

“Stop supporting terrorism, stop malign regional behavior, stop trying to control … Beirut, Damascus, Sana, [Yemen],” she added. “There is a path forward, and we will talk tomorrow if they would like to see the bright future that we believe is there for the Iranian people.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who denied his country’s involvement in the pipeline and tanker attacks, said he would talk to the Trump administration if it lifted some of its harsh economic sanctions, which are aimed at crippling the Iranian economy. U.S. officials, who say the sanctions are working, have shown no signs of removing them.

Shortly after Rouhani spoke, in Tehran on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei slapped down the idea of any dealings with Washington.

“We will not negotiate [with the United States], as negotiations are useless and may even incur harm,” he said in a speech.

Relations between Washington and Tehran deteriorated dramatically last year after Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 international Iran nuclear accord, which had obliged the Islamic Republic to dismantle most of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for sanctions relief. He immediately began reimposing sanctions.

In the Mecca meetings, which were convened by Saudi Arabia, the presence of Qatar and its prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al Thani, was also seen as a possible way to influence Iran. Qatar has cordial relations with Tehran, which puts it at odds with neighbors Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain and led to a severe rift two years ago.

The three Gulf states imposed a political and economic blockade on Qatar in mid-2017, in part as punishment for its friendliness toward Iran. Now, however, that relationship could serve as an avenue of communication and deescalation, regional analysts said.

Along with Oman and Iraq, Qatar has offered to help ease tensions. So has Japan, oddly enough, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making an overture to Trump during his state visit to Tokyo last weekend.

“We welcome the efforts by any country, whether it’s Japan, whether it’s our European allies, to help deescalate the situation,” Ortagus said.

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