If Iran Thought Military Escalation in the Gulf Would Trigger Negotiations with the West, it Thought Wrong

Western Leaders Have Hardened their Rhetorical Posture Toward Iran

Last week the Iranian navy launched a surprise attack on British shipping, seizing an oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. As if sensing overreach, figures from across Iran’s political spectrum almost immediately began calling for dialogue and de-escalation. Meanwhile, Western leaders hardened their rhetorical posture toward Iran, apparently angered by its maritime belligerency and emboldened by Iran’s perilous economic fortunes. 
 
IRAN LAUNCHES “RECIPROCAL” ATTACK IN THE GULF
 
On July 19, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ naval forces seized a British oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz, shouting over loudspeakers, “If you obey, you will be safe.” Shortly afterward, Iranian media released images of the captured crew in what appeared to many observers to be a calculated act of retribution, following the UK’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off the Strait of Gibraltar carrying oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Indeed, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council, described the move in the semi-official Fars news agency as a legitimate “reciprocal action.”
 
WESTERN RESPONSE
 
UK denunciation was swift and harsh. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt branded the seizure an “act of state piracy,” adding that "when it comes to freedom of navigation, there can be no compromise." He also announced that the UK would seek to assemble a European-led maritime protection mission in the Gulf, warning that “if Iran continues on this dangerous path, they must accept the price will be a larger Western military presence in the waters along their coastline.” 
 
For its part, the foreign affairs office of the European Union issued a statement voicing the bloc's "deep concern" at the tanker seizure and demanding “the immediate release of the remaining ship and its crew, and … restraint to avoid further tensions," and echoing Hunt’s earlier statement that "freedom of navigation must be respected at all times.”
 
President Trump added to the chorus, telling reporters during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that “it’s getting harder for me to want to make a deal with Iran… they disrespected the United States. They shouldn’t have done that. That was a big mistake.” After highlighting the U.S. military’s recent downing of an Iranian drone, the President pointedly remarked that ​Iran “is in turmoil. They’re having demonstrations all over Iran. Their inflation rate is 75 percent. They have a lot of problems​.”
 
WASHINGTON DISMISSES TEHRAN’S SIGNALS OF A DIPLOMATIC OVERTURE
 
Before the diplomatic reactions from the attack on British shipping had run their course, a rising tide of voices within Iran began calling for a reopening of talks with the U.S. At least four prominent conservatives advocated direct negotiations to end the impasse. 
 
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the New York Times in a lengthy interview that Iran should attempt dialogue with the U.S. administration because “Mr. Trump is a man of action,” and “he is a businessman and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision. We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted.”
 
In short order, General Hossein Alaei, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards joint forces and founder of its navy; Mojtaba Zonnour, the head of Parliament’s national security committee; and Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a prominent conservative leader, echoed Ahmadinejad’s call for negotiations. 
 
Yet American officials wasted little time in dismissing their overtures. Three days after the IRGC attack in the Gulf, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry brushed aside Tehran’s ostensible leverage: "The Iranians will have a more difficult time in influencing the market than they would have ten years ago … New suppliers should help keep a steady supply of fuel — whether it's crude, natural gas, or other secondary products. I think you will see less displacement of the market when there is an event like we see happening.”
 
 


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