The Trump administration wasted little time in alleging that Iran was behind the Thursday-morning attacks that left two tankers ablaze in the Gulf of Oman, dozens of crew members in need of rescue, and the stability of oil transport in the Persian Gulf in question. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the accusation the same day; by Friday morning, military spokespeople were presenting video to back up their claims.
As one would expect, Iran and its friends, Washington’s geopolitical foes, pushed back immediately. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani took the opportunity to call the U.S. government “a serious threat to the stability of the region and the world.”
Perhaps more surprising — and telling — were those who had little or nothing to say. Close U.S. allies outside the region, even Norway and Japan, where the two damaged tankers were registered, were silent or urged caution. Even the U.K., typically Washington’s closest ally on security matters, hedged its statement with “if” and said it would conduct its own inquiry. Then came a truly surprising remark from the British foreign secretary: The “starting point is obviously to believe our U.S. allies.” So we have now arrived at the moment when Washington’s closest ally thinks it’s necessary to say it believes us — even as it acts in a way that suggests it doesn’t.
Oddly, the video Washington released does appear to show men in a type of boat used by Iran removing an object that could be a mine from the side of one of the tankers, but that tanker’s owner says it appears to have been hit by a “flying object,” not a mine.
My American colleagues, friends, and family from outside the Beltway often ask me whether those of us who make Washington our home understand how dire our global situation looks to them from farther away, how concerned they are about our safety and our kids’ future. My foreign friends are generally too polite to ask — they just look at me a bit differently and offer to pay for my drinks.
So here’s the answer: yes. All my adult life, security-policy professionals in Washington trusted and stood up for each other across administrations and party lines. We gave each other the benefit of the doubt even when sometimes we should have been quicker to speak up.
Yesterday, the internet was full of Iran experts and defense wonks pointing out that Iran is fully capable of blowing up oil tankers, that the nation and its proxies have done far worse and would no doubt do so again.
But you couldn’t find people unaffiliated with the administration coming out with confidence to back Secretary Pompeo or to agree that the photos released this morning sealed the case.
Kelly Magsamen, who started her career in the George W. Bush administration, worked on his National Security Council, and stayed to work for Barack Obama before moving to a senior job at the Pentagon, is exactly the kind of official who would always have given colleagues from the other party the benefit of the doubt. But there she was on Twitter, speaking for many who couldn’t bring themselves to put fingers to keyboard:
The cautious responses coming from the European Union, Japan, Norway, and elsewhere reflect a shared concern that a spiral of attacks and allegations will lead to a full-blown war in the Gulf, or even something lesser but still profoundly damaging to the global economy, and perhaps unleash a new round of extremist violence outside the region. By Friday morning, though, oil prices were holding steady, and Reuters reported that insurance for tankers in the region had risen by 10 percent and was headed higher, as analysts said instability had reached levels not “seen since the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003.” Even as the Japanese tanker was attacked, Tokyo’s prime minister — a close partner to Trump and the leader of a country that is profoundly dependent on the steady flow of oil out of the Gulf — was in Iran trying to lower tensions.
Japan’s awkward position is a good reminder of just how profoundly international the commerce in the Gulf is. Sailors from the stricken tankers wound up on U.S. and Iranian vessels, with a Dutch tugboat also participating in the rescue.
Many of our allies have an interest in avoiding conflict in the region and see no good coming from war. They will continue working to encourage Washington and Tehran to back down.
At some point, evidence may well emerge that shows Iran was responsible. It’s also not impossible that one of Iran’s Gulf opponents, who see themselves gaining from a conflict that binds Washington to them and weakens Tehran, was behind it. If more of these relatively small provocations continue to happen, which seems certain, the sides will grow further apart, the list of grievances will get longer, and the off-ramps to defuse confrontation will crumble. American credibility, at least in some quarters, will be a side casualty of that. And because the entire U.S. security establishment is involved in pressing this case, the credibility of the entire establishment, not just its current leaders, is what’s being lost. The next president — and the world — had best not plan on being able to regain that credibility to lessen the chances of conflict. And the people who most love U.S. security institutions need to think harder and more creatively about how to rebuild from where we are. Just changing leaders, if we’re lucky enough to get there, isn’t going to be enough.