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Pompeo Blames Tanker Attacks On Iran, Offers No Evidence

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Secretary of State Pompeo said U.S. policy “remains an economic and diplomatic effort.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for a pair of attacks on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz early Thursday morning.

Pompeo spoke for less than five minutes at the State Department and provided no evidence for the assessment, which he said was based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.” The incident is the latest flashpoint in escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, which faces punishing sanctions put in place by the Trump administration following its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year.

Pompeo said that the U.S. policy “remains an economic and diplomatic effort” designed to force Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive deal covering a broader range of activities than just its nuclear weapons program.

The pronouncement was met with some skepticism across Washington, from critics who fear that Pompeo and Trump’s hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, are seeking to provoke a conflict with Iran, long a bogeyman in Republican national security politics.

As Pompeo attempts to convince the public, his “challenge is that skepticism is so deep because of the Iraq War hangover in this country,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow focused on Iran at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. National security, he said, “has become a partisan debate.”

Attacking the tankers “seems illogical,” tweeted David Rothkopf, a professor of international relations and a vocal critic of the Trump administration. “Why do something that would only increase pressure. Especially with [Iranian] leadership rejecting the idea of further talks (not a sign of feeling the pressure).”

Pompeo said that Iran is “lashing out, because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted.”

Taleblu argued that the attacks were consistent with what he described as Iranian efforts to impose a cost on the U.S. for its sanctions. “There’s a political strategy underlying this for Iran,” he said. The goal is to get the U.S. to “swerve,” he said — slow its sanctions designations and enforcement, or, potentially “get the administration interested in premature diplomacy and have the administration try to reward Iran for coming to the table.”

Lawmakers have raised questions about the political strategy behind Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. “They didn’t tell us how they were planning to get them to talk,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said after a recent briefing on the escalating tensions with Pompeo and other senior national security officials. “It just seems to be a process of blind escalation with the hopes that the Iranians will come to their senses at some point.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been rising since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal last year, which traded sanctions relief for certain curbs on the regime’s nuclear weapons program. Republicans have long derided the deal as too narrow in scope and have kept Iran as a central focus of their national security policy. Pompeo and Bolton, in particular, long have been proponents of a harsher approach to Iran.

Earlier this spring, Bolton, Pompeo, Shanahan — and the top generals in charge of U.S. troops in Europe and the Middle East — began warning about new threats from Iran, later specifying that the regime was plotting an imminent attack on U.S. troops in the Middle East. The Defense Department hurried an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, and dispatched B-52 bombers and a Patriot missile defense battery.

Trump administration officials throughout have insisted they are not seeking war with Tehran. The president has been publicly ambivalent about military engagements in the Middle East since his 2016 campaign, pledging to return U.S. troops from long wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan while encouraging regional powers to do more of their own fighting.

“We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, not about war. We’re not about going to war,” acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan told reporters last month.

The Pentagon had previously argued that ship and bomber movements taken by the Pentagon in response to the threat had backed Tehran away from the brink. The attacks on the two oil tankers — one of which is run by a Japanese company at a time when the Japanese prime minister was in Iran trying to mediate the tensions — has raised questions about that assertion and what steps DOD might take next.

Shanahan has yet to speak on the incident.

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