The drumbeat of war between the United States and Iran grew louder on Friday as President Donald Trump flatly rejected Tehran’s insistence that it had nothing to do with a pair of oil tanker explosions this week.
“We don’t take it lightly,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends.” “They are a nation of terror and they’ve changed a lot since I’ve been president, I can tell you. They were unstoppable and now they are in deep, deep trouble.”
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The remarks are the latest instance of the Trump administration ratcheting up pressure on the Iranian regime in recent months. While the two sides have been at odds since Trump entered the Oval Office, tensions flared in April, when the U.S. designated Iran’s main military group as a terrorist organization and decided to end waivers that allowed several foreign countries to continue buying Iranian oil without facing sanctions.
Since then, an escalating tit-for-tat has pushed the two sides closer to a military confrontation. The Trump administration sent warships and additional troops to the region, as Iranian leaders have themselves saber rattled, pulled back on some commitments to limit their nuclear program and rejected all U.S. demands to change their behavior.
In recent days, the Trump administration has been publicly building its case against Iran. Overnight, the Pentagon made its first attempt to release concrete evidence that the Iranian military was molesting oil tankers moving through the Strait of Hormuz, publishing a video officials said showed Iranian soldiers removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the attacked ships. And earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. intelligence had concluded Iran was responsible, an assertion Trump reiterated Friday.
“Well, Iran did do it. You know they did it, because you saw the boat, I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got, essentially, Iran written all over it,” he said. “And you saw the boat at night trying to take the mine off, and successfully took the mine off the boat and that was exposed. And that was their boat, that was them. And they didn’t want the evidence left behind.”
The public case was more forceful than the administration’s last attempt to blame Iran for similar attacks last month on vessels moving through the Strait of Hormuz, reflecting the mounting attempts to convince the public and U.S. allies that Iran poses a danger to the region. Military analysts said that while this latest evidence wasn’t completely convincing, it did seem unlikely another actor would have been behind the sabotage attempts.
“My assessment is it’s very, very likely, almost certain, that the Iranians did this. The notion that this is anything other than Iran is pretty far-fetched. I have a hard time seeing this being some kind of false flag operation by the Gulf states,” said Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era Pentagon and State Department official now at the Center for a New American Security.
Still, some pointed to the confusing placement of the mines above the ship’s waterline. Brant DeBoer, a former U.S. Navy bomb and mine disposal expert, said that type of mine is typically placed below a ship’s waterline for maximum damage, so the placement seen in the video “doesn’t make any sense unless it was just as a show of force,” said DeBoer. “Whoever placed them either didn’t know what they were doing, wanted to limit the damage they were going to cause, or didn’t want to lose the mines.”
How to best pressure Iran has long dominated many of this White House’s internal foreign policy discussions — from the president’s decision in May 2018 to pull out of the deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to Jared Kushner’s nascent proposal to settle territorial disputes in Israel. The Trump administration accuses Iranian leaders of funding violent proxy groups throughout the region and secretly working to restart its nuclear program.
But Trump himself often vacillates on how to best deal with adversaries like Iran. He wants to appear and talk tough to U.S. enemies without provoking an actual conflict, given his isolationist approach to foreign conflicts.
While the U.S. recently sent an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East to counter unspecified Iranian threats, the president has also been skeptical of his more hawkish advisers such as national security adviser John Bolton, who’s long advocated for a far harsher stance toward Iran.
Hawkish members of the administration could push Trump to pursue limited military strikes against Iranian targets, said Goldenberg. Such attacks would be similar to strikes Trump authorized in 2017 and 2018 against Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons facilities.
“You could see the administration going down a path of limited military action against Iranian targets … but the risk of miscalculation is much higher,” he said. “If President Trump is able to be convinced that he can do that without Iranian retaliation, he would be playing with fire.”
Yet despite the saber rattling from Iran hawks in the White House, Trump appeared prepared on Friday to wait out Iran. He asserted that if Tehran attempted to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, “it’s not going to be closed for long and they know it.”
“They’ve been told in strong terms, we want to get them back to the table if they want to go back,” he continued. “I’m ready when they are. Whenever they’re ready, I’m OK. In the meantime, I’m in no rush.”
Military specialists said Iran could also be calculating its actions to minimize the chance of a large-scale confrontation with the U.S.
“I think the Iranians purposefully went after Gulf targets rather than American troops in an effort to split the United States from its Gulf allies. Is Donald Trump going to go to war over a couple of tankers?” said Goldenberg.
Still, experts said the latest assault on the oil ships — if indeed ordered by Tehran — appeared to represent a shift away from more moderate policies championed over the past year by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and president, Hassan Rouhani. The attack on a Japanese vessel was particularly perplexing, given that it came the same day Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran to try and calm tensions.
One theory is that Iran wants to call Trump’s bluff.
“I think they keep pushing to demonstrate that a lot of the U.S. ability to respond is just bluster,” said Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who studies Iran’s involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. “I think the Iranians see disarray at the top of the US decision making period — that Trump doesn’t want war and isn’t going to do anything.”
Indeed, Trump responded with a bit of levity to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s declaration that Trump’s offers for peace talks were unworthy of a response.
“I’m glad he likes me so much. He has every reason not to like me,” he joked, launching into a summary of what he argued his “maximum pressure” campaign had accomplished.
“They’ve changed a lot since I’ve been president, I can tell you. They were unstoppable and now they are in deep, deep trouble,” he argued.