July 23, 2019

Iran Seizes British Tanker

“Britain called on Monday for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, days after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in what London described as an act of ‘state piracy’ in the strategic waterway… In a separate development that could generate more tensions, Iran said it had arrested 17 spies working for the CIA and sentenced some of them to death, an announcement Trump called ‘totally false.’” Reuters

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From the Left

The left is worried about the potential for escalation and urges the Trump administration to engage in diplomatic talks.

Iran's actions are understandable, though not forgivable, in response to the unilateral rejection of the nuclear deal by the U.S. and, more importantly, President Donald Trump's decision to force everybody else to toe his line. Although the other parties to the Iran nuclear deal – the European Union, Russia and China – want to keep it alive, they have been almost powerless to preserve it in any meaningful way. By imposing extra-territorial sanctions on all buyers of Iranian crude with the threat of denying them access to U.S. dollars and the American banking system on which international trade depends, Trump has effectively forced everyone else to stop buying Iran’s oil. To expect Iran to abide by its side of the nuclear deal without receiving any of the benefits of trade and investment that it was due to receive in return is naive…

“[Yet] should Iran’s harassment of tankers escalate, the oil importing and shipping countries may have little option other than to align themselves with the Americans, at least as far as protecting vessels is concerned. But if they’re going to use naval ships to protect tankers, they’ll have to be prepared to use their weapons, and that is an escalation that everyone wants to avoid. With nearly 15 million barrels a day of crude flows at risk, it is a step that may have to be taken, unless both sides step back from the brink and work to find a diplomatic solution.”
Julian Lee, Bloomberg

“Forcing crisis after crisis is a tactic, one that the Trump administration deploys on fronts both foreign and domestic. But the tactic is in service of a dangerous strategy of brinkmanship. The last crisis with Iran, which centered on the downed American drone, was averted only after Mr. Trump said he had called off a military strike at the last minute… Mr. Trump, like Mr. Obama before him, has been right in recognizing the value of talking directly with one’s adversaries. His administration long ago jettisoned the diplomatic protocol against direct talks with North Korea and the Taliban, and it now has the chance to make another grand overture.”
Editorial Board, New York Times

“The problem in Washington is that Trump has neither a strategy nor any strategists at his side—or at least none whom he’s keen to hear. He’s particularly disenchanted with his national security adviser, John Bolton; in recent weeks, he’s bad-mouthed Bolton for his war-happy ways to several of his friends… Last month, when Trump sent Bolton off to Mongolia instead of bringing him along to Japan for the G-20 summit, that seemed a clear sign that his days were numbered… [Meanwhile] there is no secretary of defense and hasn’t been a confirmed one since January. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose formal job description is chief military adviser to the president, is for the most part out of the loop… Trump is drifting toward conflict and has no idea how to stop it.”
Fred Kaplan, Slate

“The President initially said he knew nothing about Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's engagement with [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif. However, a day later, Trump confirmed that Paul is involved in diplomatic talks with Iran. Paul is not known for his diplomacy within the US government, let alone with hostile foreign powers, and he has no known history with or special knowledge of Iran. The State Department has taken the lead in past negotiations with Iran, and it's unclear with whom Paul is coordinating within the executive branch, other than perhaps Trump…

The confusing cacophony of other US government voices on Iran may leave the Iranians wary of engaging with anyone but Trump, if they really do want to de-escalate. Other Trump allies in Congress, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have warned about an overwhelming US military response against Iran. Within the executive branch, it's hard to keep track of who has the latest instructions from the President. National Security Adviser John Bolton has made policy statements on Iran that have differed from the President's, including when he said the US would stay in Syria and fight Iran… [the President needs to] clearly identify someone to speak on his behalf publicly and, more important, behind the scenes, where the real action happens.”
Samantha Vinograd, CNN

From the Right

The right argues that Iran’s latest behavior will backfire and result in Europe moving closer to the Trump administration.

The right argues that Iran’s latest behavior will backfire and result in Europe moving closer to the Trump administration.

“A major reason Trump hates the 2015 nuclear deal is that despite the huge concessions the Obama administration offered Iran in the agreement – including over $150 billion in sanctions relief – Iran’s behavior significantly worsened after the deal was announced. Iran’s harmful actions included sending troops to Syria to fight in support of dictator Bashar Assad in a civil war, stepping up support for terrorism, and increasing military spending. Iran also ramped up its ballistic missile program…

Iran’s new provocation… will drive European and other states closer to President Trump’s Iran policy. Hold-outs to U.S. Iran sanctions could soon drop their opposition. There also could be new European sanctions. Most importantly, President Trump’s restraint in avoiding using military force against Iran – coupled with dangerous Iranian provocations like the seizure of the two oil tankers Friday – may mean that if President Trump decides to attack Iran in the future, he may do so with Europe’s support.”
Fred Fleitz, Fox News

“Iran has made a strategic miscalculation here. Acting against the British while the U.K. and Iranian foreign ministers were seeking compromise over Britain's recent seizure of an Iranian tanker, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have further isolated Iran on the international stage. With a multinational naval task force for tanker escorts likely to be announced next week, the Iranians are increasingly outgunned and diplomatically isolated… Iran is heading for more economic damage. These seizures might make the hard-liners feel good, but they've made a big mistake.”
Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

Some, however, advocate a less confrontational approach. “A maximum pressure policy that was sold by its advocates inside the administration as a sledgehammer that would compel Iranian subservience to American demands has proven to be a deeply misguided approach…  Iran has met sanctions and diplomatic isolation with resistance and aggression… [Trump] should go in a drastically different direction. Instead [of] responding to Iranian retaliation by doubling down with more sanctions, export restrictions, offensive arms sales, and threats of military force, he should provide the Iranians with an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic off-ramp. The current strategy, where Iranian officials are being expected to wave the white flag before even reaching the negotiating table, is about as likely to succeed as a climber scaling Mount Everest without a coat.”
Daniel R. DePetris, Military Times

“Whether the Iranian military could defeat U.S. or allied task forces is an open question. [But] it is beyond question that Tehran can impose heavy opportunity costs on Washington. It’s already doing so. After all, every gray hull facing down the [Iranians] is a gray hull not facing down Chinese or Russian fleets or pursuing other worthwhile endeavors such as training, scraping rust, or relaxing in home port.”
James Holmes, The National Interest

Regarding Rand Paul’s diplomatic efforts, many argue that “Iran’s interest in negotiations is open to question… In 2015, former Senator and then-Secretary of State John Kerry said that Zarif had assured him that he was empowered to negotiate with the U.S. on regional issues like Syria following the nuclear deal. But that promise was empty. Iran ended up working out an arrangement with Russia to escalate the war on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. More recently, Zarif has suggested that Iran would be open to negotiations over its missile program… [then] backtracked from those comments…

“[Zarif] has frequently attacked National Security Adviser John Bolton on social media. Meanwhile, Iran’s operatives have escalated attacks on U.S. allies… There’s no doubt that Paul, a libertarian who has opposed U.S. interventions since he became a senator, is sincere when he talks about trying to prevent a war with Iran. His interlocutor, however, has a reputation for insincerity. The senator from Kentucky should be prepared to be charmed — and conned.”
Eli Lake, Bloomberg

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