Gulf of Doubt

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, listed by the United States as a terrorist organization

Let me stipulate at the outset that Iran is a bad actor. It pursued nuclear weapons (though it appears to have honored the Obama-negotiated nuclear agreement), it supports terrorists, and it tries to destabilize nations in the Middle East. Iran certainly is capable of launching attacks on oil tankers in international waters.

But, since it is the administration of President Donald Trump that is accusing Iran, skepticism is warranted. Trump’s uneasy relationship with the truth is one reason to doubt the American version of what happened in the Gulf of Oman. The president is, to put it bluntly, a pathological liar. As of the end of April of this year, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, he had made more than 10,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. In recent months, Trump has averaged nearly 23 lies a day. If the president appeared on the White House lawn to announce he had Rice Krispies for breakfast, a reasonable person would ask to see proof.

John Bolton, national security adviser

Another reason to question the American claim is the role of John Bolton, the national security adviser. Bolton is an unreconstructed hawk, a militant on foreign policy who advocates the use of force against adversaries. If he had his way, Bolton would beat North Korea and Iran into submission, in no particular order. In the administration of George W. Bush, Bolton led the charge to invade Iraq, claiming, on the basis of little or no evidence, that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction and was in cahoots with al-Qaeda in plotting 9/11. Both allegations were false. Bolton either was unduly credulous of dubious evidence or willfully lying. In either case, he should not be in the government today, and he certainly cannot be believed.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is loudest in accusing Iran of the tanker attacks, is not without credibility problems of his own. Pompeo was quick to blame Tehran for a May 31 car bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed four Afghans and slightly wounded four American service members. The Taliban claimed responsibility, but Pompeo insisted the terrorist group should not be believed, and he continued to point the finger at Iran. Pompeo also is biased as he is an advocate of regime change in Tehran.

Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg says confusion about what happened stems from the Trump administration’s “low” credibility. “It’s a little distressing to think that because this administration’s credibility is so low in general, I think a lot of people are thinking twice at a moment when America’s word should be decisive,” the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Despite that note of caution, Buttigieg added, “That being said, [the attacks in international waters are] not inconsistent with Iranian behavior that has been aggressive and malignant in the region.” Still, “an administration that has been extremely unreliable” cannot be trusted.

International reaction to the American charge of Iranian blame has been skeptical. The Japanese owner of one of the tankers said the vessel was struck by a flying projectile. That assertion contradicts the American military claim that both ships were hit by limpet mines, which are attached to boats below the waterline using magnets. “We received reports that something flew towards the ship,” insisted Yutaka Katada. “The place where the projectile landed was significantly higher than the water level, so we are absolutely sure that this wasn’t a torpedo. I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.” For its part, the Japanese government requested the United States provide further evidence to back its assertion that Iran is to blame for the attacks. A source close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Pompeo’s claims “are not definite proof that it’s Iran.” (The attack occurred when Abe was meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, a strange coincidence.)

U.S. video purportedly showing an Iranian ship removing an unexploded mine from the side of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman

Japan is not alone in doubting the U.S. story. Germany’s foreign minister said the grainy video Washington provided is insufficient to make a definitive assessment. Officials from the European Union and the United Kingdom also expressed skepticism. Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was one of the few to back the United States fully. He called on the international community to take a “decisive stance” against what he termed Iranian expansionism.

The abysmal relationship between the Trump administration and the truth sadly accounts for much of the questioning at home and abroad. Also contributing to the skepticism is that American officials have not made a solid case. Much of Pompeo’s “evidence”  was inferential: Proxy groups operating in the Gulf do not have the resources to conduct such an attack and Iran has done this sort of thing before. That is not exactly compelling language geared to convincing skeptics beyond a reasonable doubt.

Doubt leads to conspiratorial theories. Some have posited that Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates launched the attack to make it look like Iran was at fault, thus provoking an American overreaction, possibly triggering a war in which Iran’s power would be curbed. Similarly, theories abound that Iranian-backed militias are responsible, again with the aim of forcing the United States to attack Iran. Or, perhaps, worst of all is a “wag the dog” scenario in which the Trump administration blames Iran — without conclusive evidence — to induce a crisis as a distraction from the president’s low poll numbers in matchups against several Democratic challengers or the unfavorable reaction to his tariff and immigration policies, even among some Republicans.

All of this is dispiriting. Iran may well be responsible for the attack, but lack of compelling evidence and the past chicanery of Trump and his aides lead to uncertainty. No one should be surprised that the administration’s prevarications in the past cast doubt on whether it can ever be believed. This is a scenario long feared, and, now, it has arrived. Just another reason why Trump must be removed.

Posted June 18, 2019

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