It started with a surprise statement on a Sunday night that the US was rushing military forces to counter alleged Iranian threats. What followed were two weeks of bombastic rhetoric and swells of fear and confusion over whether Washington and Tehran were lurching toward open conflict. And that’s how President Donald Trump says he likes it.
“With all of the Fake and Made Up News out there,” Trump wrote Friday on Twitter, “Iran can have no idea what is actually going on.” Later, in a speech to real estate agents, Trump made no effort to clarify, saying, “It’s probably a good thing because they’re saying, ‘Man, I don’t know where these people are coming from,’ right?” It’s the latest manifestation of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy, which has made a virtue of keeping foes guessing and frequently leaves allies rattled and members of Congress frustrated. “Given the degree to which the president has mischaracterized prior intelligence on other matters, or disputed the work product of the agencies when it contradicted his preferred narrative, his actions have generated understandable doubt on what we really know of Iranian plans and intentions,” said Rep.
Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff, D-Calif, said Iran poses a real threat to the West and endorsed the administration’s warning to Iran that any attack on US forces “would be disastrous” for Iran. Armed conflict seemed unlikely in the short term, with no further US buildup in the works and no fresh Iranian provocations. But neither did the administration appear closer to its stated goal of applying enough diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Tehran to compel it to end support for extremist groups and other disruptive policies.
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The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and its battle group, whose accelerated deployment triggered the concern in some quarters about a drift toward conflict with Iran, by Friday had reached the waters of the Arabian Sea without incident, US defense officials said.
It typically would proceed farther into the Arabian Gulf and thus closer to Iran during such a deployment, though as a matter of policy the Navy does not disclose ship movements in advance. The carrier is on an around-the-world deployment and was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea when John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, announced on May 5 that it had been ordered to the Middle East, along with an aircraft bomber group, in response to “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” The unusual Sunday night announcement raised questions – many still unanswered – about exactly what new threats Iran had posed. Other officials later said Iran had loaded fully assembled ballistic missiles aboard small boats in Iranian territorial waters. This suggested the possibility of an Iranian intent to threaten Western military or commercial ships, though that threat seems not to have materialized. Last weekend, four non-US commercial vessels were damaged in the Gulf, and while details are unclear, US officials said it appeared likely that Iran had a hand in the apparent sabotage.
Some analysts see the administration’s military moves as a deliberate effort to put Iran’s leaders on edge, perhaps with the broader goal of encouraging them to take Trump up on his offer of direct talks. “I think it was a well-coordinated psyops campaign,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Psyops” is a reference to psychological operations aimed at influencing or intimidating an adversary. If that is the case, the administration’s moves also managed to unnerve and confound many in Congress as well as some American allies, who openly expressed worry that Washington could be drifting toward armed conflict with Iran. Concerns escalated further with the State Department’s announcement this week that it was pulling all nonessential employees out of Iraq.
Officials later said this was a precaution and not a sign of impending military action. Top leaders in Congress received a classified briefing on Iran on Thursday, but many other lawmakers from both parties have criticized the White House for not keeping them informed. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other top officials are expected to brief members of the Senate behind closed doors on Tuesday. The House also has requested a briefing.
Iran’s top diplomat meanwhile dismissed the possibility of war erupting in the region, saying Tehran did not want a conflict and that no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”, the state news agency IRNA reported. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have increased in recent days, raising concerns about a potential USIran conflict.
Earlier this week the United States pulled some diplomatic staff from its Baghdad embassy following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf. “There will be no war because neither do we want a war, nor has anyone the idea or illusion it can confront Iran in the region,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told IRNA before ending a visit to Beijing. “The fact is that Trump has officially said and reiterated again that he does not want a war, but people around him are pushing for war on the pretext that they want to make America stronger against Iran,” Zarif said.
He told Reuters last month that Trump could be lured into a conflict by the likes of US national security adviser John Bolton, an ardent Iran hawk. In a sign of the heightened tension across the region, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq after days of sabre rattling between Washington and Tehran. Elsewhere in the Gulf, Bahrain warned its citizens against traveling to Iraq or Iran due to “unstable conditions.”
China offered strong support to Iran on Friday, with its top diplomat telling Iran’s foreign minister that China opposes unilateral sanctions and supports Tehran’s efforts to safeguard its interests. Meeting in Beijing, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi told the Iranian foreign minister that given the important and rapidly-evolving situation, the two needed to strengthen communication and coordination. “China resolutely opposes the US implementation of unilateral sanctions and so-called ‘long arm jurisdiction’, understands the current situation and concerns of the Iranian side, and supports the Iranian side to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,” China’s Foreign Ministry paraphrased Wang as saying. China appreciates Iran’s full implementation of the nuclear deal and intention to stick to it, Wang added. “The dispute surrounding the Iranian nuclear agreement is essentially a contest between multilateralism and unilateralism,” he said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov cautioned on Thursday that US pressures on Iran would lead to further escalation and risks of an armed conflict. Russia told the US side about its views on developments towards Iran during talks held between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Ryabkov said in a statement carried by Russia’s news agency (TASS). Moscow warned Washington against tendency to slip into a large-scale confrontation in the Middle East region, he added. He said it was a naive thing that US officials think pressures would eventually compel Tehran to get into negotiations with Washington under the latter’s conditions.
Air travel warning
US diplomats warned Saturday that commercial airliners flying over the wider Arabian Gulf faced a risk of being “misidentified” amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran. The warning relayed by US diplomatic posts from the Federal Aviation Administration underlined the risks the current tensions pose to a region crucial to global air travel.
It came as Lloyd’s of London warned of increasing risks to maritime shipping in the region. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on Friday advised its nationals, particularly the British-Iranian dual nationals, against all travel to Iran given the mounting security risks. The travel advice has been changed in response to the Iranian government’s continued arbitrary detention and mistreatment of dual nationals, and Iranian citizens with links to institutions based in the UK, according to a FCO statement. “There is a risk that British nationals, and a higher risk that British/Iranian dual nationals, could be arbitrarily detained in Iran.
“All British nationals should consider carefully the risks of travelling to Iran. The Iranian authorities don’t recognise dual nationality for Iranian citizens and therefore don’t grant consular access for FCO officials to visit them in detention,” the statement said. “On 24 and 25 June 2018, protests about the economic situation in Iran took place inside and around the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. There were also widespread protests across Iran in late December 2017 and early January 2018. The risk that these protests re-occur or new demonstrations begin on other grounds, remains.
“Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Iran. Attacks could happen anywhere, including in places visited by foreigners,” the statement added. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, “Dual nationals face an intolerable risk of mistreatment if they visit Iran.” “Despite the UK providing repeated opportunities to resolve this issue, the Iranian regime’s conduct has worsened. Having exhausted all other options, I must now advise all British-Iranian dual nationals against traveling to Iran.
“The dangers they face include arbitrary detention and lack of access to basic legal rights, as we have seen in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been separated from her family since 2016,” Hunt pointed out.
“Regrettably, I must also offer a message of caution to Iranian nationals resident in the UK – but who return to visit family and friends – especially where the Iranian government may perceive them to have personal links to UK institutions or the British government.
“The Iranian government does not recognise dual nationality and, as such, if a dual national is detained in Iran, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s capacity to provide consular support is extremely limited. “In line with international norms, the UK is not able to offer consular assistance to Iranian mono-nationals,” he added.