Mixed US signals on Iran muddy the path forward, may increase risk of war: Analysis

PHOTO: In this file photo, President Donald Trump arrives with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and National Security Advisor John Bolton for a meeting at the White House on October 11, 2018.PlayJonathan Ernst/Reuters, FILE
WATCH More troops to head to Mideast as Iran tensions rise

President Donald Trump has made clear in public statements that he does not seek war with Iran. But with conflicting signals from his advisers and military movements in the region, the question is whether he may stumble into one anyway.

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Members of Congress warned Tuesday that the president needs to clearly articulate a strategy and address the country to explain a path forward as Iran threatens to increase its nuclear fuel stockpiles and lashes out under intense U.S. economic pressure.

Visiting U.S. military chiefs for the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration was seeking to deter Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons or acting out in the region. But some analysts say it's precisely because of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign on the country that Iran's government is behaving this way.

PHOTO: The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln pulls alongside the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic for a replenishment-at-sea, in Arabian Sea, June 7, 2019. Handout/Reuters
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln pulls alongside the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic for a replenishment-at-sea, in Arabian Sea, June 7, 2019.

"Iran is keen to show that bullying tactics will not work. Tehran has met maximum pressure with maximum resistance, first refusing to leave the nuclear deal and then threatening to restart its nuclear program," according to Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

In May 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and began reimposing sanctions -- now to an extent greater and more intensely enforced than ever before. The administration says it is seeking to change Iran's behavior, but under that economic pressure, Iran has threatened to also violate the nuclear deal by raising its uranium enrichment levels while conducting sabotage attacks on oil vessels and supporting proxy groups throughout the region -- charges from the U.S. that Iran denies.

By making its own show of force, Iran is seeking leverage with the U.S., according to analysts, especially by threatening oil supply routes through the Strait of Hormuz or by warning it will break the nuclear accord known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. In response, the U.S. has boosted its own military posture by speeding up the deployment to the region of an aircraft carrier strike group, along with B-52 bombers and an additional 2,500 U.S. service members since May.

"We are there to deter aggression. President Trump does not want war," said Pompeo, adding that his department is working with the Pentagon in "making sure that we have the capability to respond if Iran makes a bad decision."

PHOTO: An image released by the Pentagon shows what the Navy says is the damage on the starboard side of the Kokuka Courageous, which was sustained from a limpet mine attack on a June 13, 2019, while operating in the Gulf of Oman. Us Navy/Reuters
An image released by the Pentagon shows what the Navy says is the damage on the starboard side of the Kokuka Courageous, which was sustained from a limpet mine attack on a June 13, 2019, while operating in the Gulf of Oman.

But the risk now is that both sides, in seeking to deter the other, will ratchet up tensions that they force the other to make a bad decision or make a mistake that leads to one.

The Pentagon's second highest-ranking military officer acknowledged that grim possibility.

"The risks of miscalculation are real," Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday.

Selva said that the U.S. "will respond" if Iran or any of its "surrogates" "directly engage U.S. forces or they directly engage U.S. interests or citizens in the region."

That's a broad scope, with Pompeo tying Iran to a Taliban attack on U.S. troops in Kabul and holding the government responsible for attacks by affiliated groups, like the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are fighting the Saudi-backed government and a coalition of the Saudis, Emiratis, and other Arab countries.

The administration refuses to say what their "red line" is, and instead, the mixed signals from officials have made it difficult for Iran to know. Pompeo said last Thursday that attacks on two oil vessels that day were a "clear threat to international peace and security," but Trump said Monday that they were "very minor." Similarly, Trump said -- while in Japan last month -- that he would like to talk to Iran, but Pompeo added that would happen only after Tehran shows it is willing to meet the 12 steps he laid out in a speech, including abandoning ballistic missile development and ending support for its proxy groups like Hezbollah -- things Iran is very unlikely to do.

PHOTO: In this photo released on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
In this photo released on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran.

Even the threat of U.S. force seems to have come into doubt. While Pompeo said on Sunday that "all options" are on the table, "of course" including military strikes, Trump told TIME Magazine on Monday, "I wouldn't say that. I can't say that at all."

There does seem to be one area of agreement, however. In that interview, Trump also seemed to indicate that the U.S. is not as invested in defending commercial oil and shipping routes, "Other places get such vast amounts of oil there. We get very little. We have made tremendous progress in the last two and a half years in energy."

Instead, top officials, including Pompeo, have called on China, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and others who are more dependent on those resources to step up and condemn Iran's reported attacks on oil vessels.

"None of those countries have actually shown any real predilection to press the Iranians to stop what they're doing," said Selva. "We as the international community shouldn't tolerate (it)."

But many countries are hesitant to join the U.S. in loudly blaming Iran because they're concerned about increasing tensions or further backing Iran into a corner. European countries, especially the three still in the JCPOA -- France, Germany and the United Kingdom -- instead want to do what they can to keep Iran in the nuclear deal, which Iran says will only happen if they can get the economic benefits they were promised under the deal. To do that, countries will have to defy U.S. sanctions.

The only off-ramp seems to be negotiations, but so far, both leaders -- Trump and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran -- have ruled out any talks.

Both sides, instead, appear intent on trying to increase their leverage until then.