The US-Iran standoff may be cooling off

After a weeks-long face-off that many feared could lead to war with Iran, it’s looking like the US may now be backing down.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration said it had intelligence showing that Iran planned to attack Americans in the Middle East. As a result, the US put an aircraft carrier, bomber planes, and anti-missile batteries in the region.

Those moves, National Security Adviser John Bolton proclaimed, were meant “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Iran, meanwhile, told its proxies to prepare for war and has fourfold accelerated low-enriched uranium production for its nuclear program (though it hasn’t said that it plans to pursue a nuclear weapon).

That increased worries that Washington and Tehran were headed for conflict, either because Iran hawks in the Trump administration wanted one or because of a miscalculation during the fragile situation.

President Donald Trump only made that possibility more real after tweeting on Sunday that “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.” However, Trump has openly and privately expressed no desire for a war.

Still, the moment was rife for one side to bring the tensions down. Now it seems like the US has begun to do so.

On Tuesday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters, “I think our steps were very prudent, and we’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans. And that’s what’s extremely important.” In other words, the imminent threat the Trump administration was warning about may not be so imminent anymore.

And after a Tuesday briefing on the Iran intelligence led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said the Trump administration isn’t itching for a fight: “I actually don’t believe that the Administration wants war.” Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee member added, “I also think they are all tactics and no strategy.”

Still, it appears that both in public and in private, top Trump officials are signaling that the worst may be over and Washington doesn’t seek a war. Added to reports that Pompeo, a noted Iran hawk, is leaning on European allies to compel Tehran to “de-escalate” the situation, it’s beginning to look like the worst may be over.

The issue, though, is that America’s bluster may have only worsened its Iran problem.

How the Trump administration’s Iran standoff backfired

Few doubt that credible intelligence of Iranian threats exists, yet another reminder of what deadly actors Iran and its proxies can be in the Middle East. But there is disagreement over just how serious — and how imminent — those threats are.

The Trump administration made the case that Americans faced mortal danger and increased the pressure on Iran to quell it. The Islamic Republic’s response to that pressure, however, only heightened the danger.

Two specific instances come to mind. First, Iran announced that it would produce four times more low-enriched uranium. That could potentially put it over the amount the 2015 nuclear deal allows it to have within weeks, which means Iran would be in violation of the agreement President Donald Trump withdrew the US from in May 2018.

“Tehran is not bluffing,” Henry Rome, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, wrote in an email on Tuesday. The move “will also slowly reduce Iran’s breakout time” to obtain highly enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear weapon, he continued, “potentially setting up a geopolitical crisis over the nuclear issue in the first quarter of 2020.”

And last week, four oil tankers were damaged in attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway aggressively patrolled by Iran through which a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 percent of the world’s oil production flows. Two of the oil tankers belonged to Saudi Arabia and one belonged to the United Arab Emirates — both staunch enemies of Iran and friends to the US. (The fourth was owned by a Norwegian company.)

Unnamed US officials told NBC News that it’s “highly likely” based on intelligence that Iran or groups allied with it were behind the attacks, a similar conclusion reached by a Norwegian insurance company that assesses risk to shipping vessels, according to a confidential report seen by Reuters. That indicates Iran or one of its proxies aimed to signal it could stunt global trade and the world economy in unexpected ways and under duress.

Trump continues to say he just wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons and negotiate a new deal with the US. But his withdrawal from the deal, coupled with the recent crisis, only made that possibility less likely.

The US-led deescalation, then, is good for current tensions — but totally backfired in getting Trump what he desires.

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