PARIS—Who was it who blasted two tankers in the Persian Gulf on Thursday? Whodunit?
The Trump administration says it must have been the Iranians. Trump told Fox & Friends on Friday the attack has “got Iran written all over it.” And Iran says it must have been somebody else. And because both sides have such long records of deceit and, really, no regard for the truth, we the public and the press find ourselves sliding toward war with no firm grip on the facts.
Gosh, that feels familiar: a plunge into “unknown unknowns.” But the information situation is much worse today than when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld uttered that delphic phrase amid the vanguard of lies that preceded the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Now, after so many thousands of blatant falsehoods by the current president of the United States, it’s almost impossible to believe anything he says or, indeed, to know what he actually believes himself. For every prevarication there are countless equivocations, the favorites being “could be” and “who knows?”
So how do we begin to parse what really happened?
Many would suggest we start with the question of motive. But the doorway to madness in the Middle East is marked with a sign that reads: “Ask yourself, who benefits from the crime?” Or, more legalistically speaking, cui bono? And in a world of untrue facts, which the Middle East has been since Biblical times, “who benefits” is propounded as if it were definitive proof of guilt or innocence, depending on your ideological inclination.
Cui bono? My enemy, of course. Quod erat demonstratum.
As The Daily Beast’s Adam Rawnsley wrote in his well-reported piece about the latest tanker incident, Iran has an obvious motive: pushing back against the "maximum pressure" campaign the Trump administration has imposed on its economy. And Iran has the means, including its version of the U.S. Navy’s SEALs, to place the sort of limpet mines that appear to have been used in the attacks.
Iran is also good at playing the classic covert action game of "You know I did it, but you can't prove it." And whoever carried out the pinprick attacks on four tankers near the United Arab Emirates last month, or the more dramatic hits on the tankers off the Iranian coast this week, would seem to be ratcheting up the level of violence to gauge reaction, looking for the red lines. That would be typical of Iran as well.
So far, by targeting ships carrying petrochemical products from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and avoiding loss of life, whoever is doing this has sent some significant messages: the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman are not secure. Oil prices jumped dramatically and insurance rates for Gulf shipping are going up as well. Escalation could be around the corner. The world is wringing its hands over the prospect of war.
But apart from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's warning against attacks on American personnel and installations, no red lines have been drawn, much less crossed. When Pompeo accused Iran of carrying out the attacks on tankers, he announced the response would be continued economic pressure and stepped-up diplomatic action.
The problem for Donald Trump is that his "maximum pressure" campaign has left him, in fact, with little room to maneuver on the economic front. When your pedal's to the metal, you can't push it further down. And Trump's eccentric, insulting truculence has made it hard for Pompeo to pull together a strong diplomatic effort, even among traditional allies.
Pompeo vowed to take the matter before the United Nations Security Council, but two of the five permanent members, China and Russia, have no reason at all to help the U.S. policy toward Iran. The latter is under U.S. sanctions, the former facing prohibitive U.S. tariffs. They have every incentive to work with Tehran, not against it, in efforts to defeat the weaponized American dollar—which is, in fact, Trump's weapon of choice.
The core assumption of the cui bono crowd is that Trump wants a war with Iran, just as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the infamous "neocons" wanted war with Iraq in 2003. Another common reference is to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, exaggerated and falsified in 1964 to open the way for massive U.S. troop deployments to Vietnam.
Reasoning by analogy, a common refrain is that the tanker attacks last month and this week may be, as the Institute for Public Accuracy put it, “Persian Gulf of Tonkin.” They supposedly were “false flag” operations conducted by Iran’s enemies but made to look like Iranian operations.
Certainly that is the line taken by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, noting the irony of hits on tankers carrying naptha and methanol to Japan just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Tehran. “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” Zarif tweeted Thursday.
But does Trump want war with Iran? There’s no question Israel’s belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s blood-soaked Mohammed bin Salman, both of them Trump buddies, would like to see the U.S. beat the hell out of the mullahs. They’re ready to fight to the last American. And National Security Advisor John Bolton seems about as hysterically belligerent as Henery Hawk in the old Looney Toons cartoons. But he is also a skilled backroom warmonger, playing a game with sanctions and waivers on Iranian trade calculated to dispirit and infuriate the Tehran regime—perhaps provoking it to cross a fatal red line.
Trump, on the other hand, likes to talk tough, as The Washington Post’s David Ignatius pointed out recently, but that doesn’t mean he wants to get into a shooting war of any kind. His entire focus is on the 2020 elections, and he knows his base likes the fiery rhetoric, as long as nobody is firing back at American soldiers on the ground.
Is there a way out of a wider confrontation and conflagration? For the moment, Trump is saying he wants to talk and Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is saying that’s not going to happen.
Will that remain the case? If so, then the Bibis, Bin Salmans, and Boltons may be able to get the war they seem to want. But before that happens, it will be easier to understand what’s going on if one puts aside cui bono and false flag arguments, and focuses instead on the game of covert and overt brinksmanship.
Iran’s pretty good at it. Trump? We’ll see.