Tension in the Gulf Appears to Peak, with Slight Indications of a Thaw

While War of Words Continues Between Washington and Tehran, US Officials Say Iran Threat Has Receded

The latest escalation in tensions between Iran and Washington is not yet over but appears to be approaching its denouement. While Iranian and American officials continue to trade stiffly-worded warnings, American officials say that the Iranian threat to U.S. troops has receded, while President Trump has denied any intention of seeking regime change in Tehran.


On May 24, President Trump announced that the U.S. would be dispatching an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East to bolster U.S. Central Command defenses. The New York Times reported that U.S. military commanders, supported by more hawkish members of the administration, had been considering deploying larger numbers of troops, but had been overruled. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan called the 1,500 figure “a prudent response to credible threats from Iran.”

On the same day, President Trump declared a state of emergency, enabling himself to circumvent Congress and unilaterally approve 22 pending transfers of munitions, aircraft parts, and other supplies to three Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the measure was intended to "to deter Iranian aggression and build partner self-defense capacity … These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from [Iran]."

Iranian officials were quick to respond to these measures, with General Morteza Qorbani, an adviser to Iran’s military command, threatening, “If [the Americans] commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, for his part, issued more tempered criticism: “Increased U.S. presence in our region is extremely dangerous and it threatens international peace and security, and this should be addressed.”


Despite the additional measures aimed at containing Iranian influence, U.S. officials have also been hinting that the Iranian threat to US forces — the catalyst for the latest bout of tension between the two nations — had receded. According to Secretary Shanahan, the deployments of additional American forces to the region had a marked deterrent effect. “We’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans,” Shanahan told reporters before briefing Congress on the situation in the Persian Gulf. “That doesn’t mean that the threats that we’ve previously identified have gone away,” he added. “Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region.”

On Monday, President Trump himself weighed in. He disclaimed any intention of regime change and suggested the potential for a future US-Iranian agreement. At a joint press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump said, “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons… and I think we’ll make a deal. I think Iran — again, I think Iran has tremendous economic potential. And I look forward to letting them get back to the stage where they can show that."


Iranian officials began signaling this week that, in their understanding, the peak of the crisis is behind them. In a recent interview, the head of Iran’s parliamentary security and foreign affairs commission played down the prospect of armed conflict. “We don’t see [these developments] as a sign war is coming,” conservative lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. These moves “are not real” but “propaganda.”

White House supporters are meanwhile interpreting the easing of tensions as a vindication of the administration’s policy. According to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, “the real story behind the current Mideast tension is that Iran is acting out because Mr. Trump’s policy of applying maximum pressure is working. The U.S. recently designated the IRGC as a terrorist group, which will hurt its many business interests. Washington also has closed loopholes on the sale of Iranian oil and announced new restrictions on Iran’s metals exports. All of this has Tehran lashing out with anger and threats.”


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