The Editorial Board - The New York Times What can be said with certainty about the explosions that rocked two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday is that attacks on civilian targets are reprehensible.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a likely culprit، and a video taken by a United States Navy surveillance plane demands an explanation. It shows what American officials say was a Revolutionary Guards patrol boat pulling up alongside the Kokuka Courageous، one of the damaged tankers، several hours after the initial explosion، and removing a mine. Iranian officials denied involvement، and the Japanese owner of the Kokuka Courageous said Friday that the tanker was struck by a flying projectile، not a mine.
So there are unanswered questions about what happened، not just on Thursday but also last month when American officials blamed Iran for similar attacks against four tankers on the same waterway، which links to the Persian Gulf and carries almost one-third of the world’s petroleum.
The incident is the latest evidence that the United States and Iran are on a collision course، at a moment in which hard-liners on both sides have little interest in any diplomatic off-ramp. After withdrawing from the 2015 agreement that restrained Iran’s nuclear program in fanciful pursuit of a “better deal،” President Trump embarked on a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran. The United States has imposed crushing sanctions، and more are planned، with a goal of shutting off Iran’s oil exports، the country’s main source of revenue.
Administration officials say this strategy is working because Iranian financing for its proxy forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon has been reduced. But Iranian leaders were never going to just capitulate to American demands، and they continue working to thwart American objectives in Syria، Iraq and elsewhere across the region.
Iran is also edging toward exceeding the limits imposed by the nuclear deal، announcing plans to increase its stockpile of reactor-grade nuclear fuel. And it may well be that the Revolutionary Guards Corps، which wields important military and economic clout in Iran and has often been at odds with the country’s more pragmatic political leadership، intends to safeguard its own interests by threatening the oil transport on which the world’s economy depends.
Iranians understand how damaging a conflict with the United States could be. But officials have long signaled that if they cannot export their oil، and maintain their economy، no Gulf state will be allowed to do so.
The Trump administration’s lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with Iran has resulted in a series of conflicting messages، all of which contribute to a growing sense of foreboding and unpredictability. While the president has said he wants to extricate America from foreign wars، he also ordered a carrier group into the Persian Gulf last month، and he has sometimes raised the possibility of military action.
Mr. Trump continues to rely for advice on leading hawks، the national security adviser، John Bolton، and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo، who on Thursday went beyond the tanker incidents to accuse Iran of several other attacks without offering proof.
At the same time، Mr. Trump has dangled the possibility of talks with the Iranians، and، however inept his international deal-making has previously proved to be، that approach is far preferable to the escalation apparently favored by some of his advisers. But he seems to be backing away from that course. “It is too soon to even think about making a deal،” he wrote in a tweet on Thursday.
Iran’s supreme leader، Ayatollah Ali Khamenei، was، if anything، more adamant about not even talking. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan، who was visiting Tehran when the tankers were attacked، presented a message from Mr. Trump، the ayatollah، according to Iranian state media، responded، “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange، and I do not have any reply for him، now or in future.”
It may be too soon for a deal، but it is not too soon to chart a course out of this turbulence.
Once American and allied intelligence agencies thoroughly investigate the tanker attacks، the data should be presented to the United Nations Security Council. It may be necessary for the United States and its partners to reflag and escort oil tankers in the Persian Gulf، as happened in 1987 and 1988، during the Iran-Iraq war.
Dialogue between the Trump administration and Iranian government would be wise، though Iran may prove unwilling to talk unless sanctions are eased and the United States rejoins the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile، attacks against civilian shipping in one of the world’s most vital international waterways، which sent crude oil prices up more than 3 percent on Thursday، have to stop. Every new provocation will make it harder to avoid a new regional cataclysm.