Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Tehran, intended to urge the government of Iran to talk seriously with the United States about resuming direct diplomacy, was a long shot. The enmity between the two countries is too deep and the demands too sweeping to anticipate a breakthrough. But if Iran was looking for an opportunity to end the stalemate, the trip afforded just that.
Apparently, Iran is not looking for such an opening. Abe’s entreaties were flatly rejected by the Iranian leadership. And as if to put an exclamation point on the futility of the effort, two ships in the Gulf of Oman came under attack during the trip. While it was not immediately known who was behind the attack, the culprit could be any actor determined to scuttle diplomacy. The risk of conflict is rising — and that seems to have been the intent of the provocations.
Abe went to Iran with the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, who told the prime minister that he did not want to see an escalation in tensions with Iran. Abe relayed that message to Iran’s leaders. After meeting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Abe declared himself to be “of the opinion that major progress has been made toward securing peace and stability in this region.” He added that Khamenei said that “Iran has no intention of manufacturing, possessing or using nuclear weapons.” Iranian officials characterized the conversation with the prime minister as “extensive and friendly.”
Khamenei’s office, however, released a statement after the meeting that was considerably less positive. It declared, “I do not consider Trump, as a person, deserving to exchange messages with and will give no response.” The ayatollah’s website added, “We will not negotiate with the United States.”
More troubling than those comments were attacks on two ships in the Gulf of Oman — one a Japanese-operated tanker; the other is owned by Norway) — both of which were carrying “Japan-related cargo,” according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Those attacks were preceded by attacks on four oil tankers in the same waters last month. No country has taken responsibility for the attacks, but the U.S. has blamed Iran for all six and said that it will take the matter to the United Nations Security Council.
The timing suggests that they were intended to make a definitive statement about Iran’s rejection of talks with the U.S. Some experts argue that Tehran is signaling that it has options to counter tightening U.S. sanctions — which are doing great damage to the Iranian economy — and that if Trump wants to talk then he needs to make concrete gestures toward reconciliation. The U.S. demand — changes in virtually every aspect of Iranian foreign policy in the region — is too great for the Iranian leadership to contemplate without such steps.
Some note that the timing of the attacks was too good — occurring exactly as Abe met Khamenei — prompting speculation that they might have been conducted by other parties that had equally strong reasons to scuttle any talk between the U.S. and Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was among the skeptics, noting, “Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.”
The chief danger now is that tensions have been ratcheted up to an extremely high level and there is the risk of inadvertent conflict.
For the past month, the U.S. has been sending military troops and assets — an aircraft carrier, strategic bombers and reinforcements for its forces already in the Middle East — to warn Iran against additional provocations. The Gulf of Oman is a relatively small waterway, crowded with vessels. Small Iranian craft ply the waters, frequently harassing larger ships.
Of particular concern is the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow gateway (only 32 km wide at its narrowest) that connects the Gulf to the Arabian Sea, and through which passes about one-third of the world’s oil tanker traffic. About 80 percent of Japan’s oil imports come from the Middle East and cross the strait. Tehran has periodically threatened to close the strait, although it is not clear how serious those warnings are.
Tensions are high, trust is low and there are increasing numbers of assets in a region where maneuvering room is constrained. The likelihood of an accident, confrontation or crisis is high. It is critical that there at least be channels of communication.
In these circumstances, Abe had almost no choice but to take his trip to Iran even though there was little chance of a breakthrough. It is easy to call his effort a failure, but if he has established a connection that can facilitate conversations in the event of a crisis, then the trip should be considered a success.