For a year after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, Tehran could credibly claim to be the wronged party. The Islamic regime took the advisable course of action by avoiding retaliatory measures and continuing to comply with the agreement. As a result, Tehran enjoyed the support of much of the rest of the world, including the deal’s other signatories: the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China.
Now, however, the regime’s provocative actions put it at risk of losing the goodwill it garnered. The attempt last week by Iranian forces to impede the passage of a British-owned tanker as it moved through the Strait of Hormuz was a sign of Iran picking unnecessary fights.
Iranian officials rubbished Britain’s allegations, just as they dismissed US and UK claims that Tehran was behind sabotage attacks on six tankers in the Gulf in May and June. But it is hard not to believe that Tehran is pursuing a dangerous game of tit-for-tat, as Iranian officials deploy increasingly belligerent rhetoric and vow “resistance” to the “economic war” the US is waging against the republic.
Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to disrupt the flow of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, the vital Gulf waterway. The attempt to block the vessel’s journey came after Tehran accused the UK of “piracy” and warned it would face “consequences” for British commandos’ earlier seizure of an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.
The UK insists the ship was apprehended because it was smuggling Iranian crude to Syria in violation of EU sanctions and had nothing to do with Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy against the republic. But Iran views it as an extension of US hostility.
In addition, Iran has breached elements of the nuclear accord, accelerating its uranium enrichment process to pressure the deal’s European signatories into providing economic relief to counter crippling US sanctions.
An Iranian reaction was predictable the moment Mr Trump triggered the crisis by irresponsibly withdrawing from an agreement Tehran was complying with. US sanctions make it impossible for Iran to reap the economic benefits it was promised when it agreed to curb its atomic activity.
The Islamic republic’s frustration is understandable. But Iran’s leaders should not fall into Mr Trump’s trap and strike out to the point where European powers feel they have no choice but to abandon the accord and align themselves closer to the US position.
Escalation in the Gulf: a timeline of clashes Subtitles unavailable That would push Iran into isolation and further escalate tensions. With each step, the risk of a miscalculation sparking a broader conflagration rises. Europe, which remains committed to the nuclear accord, needs to step up its diplomatic efforts and test the seriousness of Mr Trump’s offer of talks with Iran.
The UK in particular must be wary of being sucked into the hostilities by the Trump administration — it was notable that the first news of this week’s tanker incident came out of Washington, not London. The UK argues its efforts to save the nuclear deal are distinct from its decision to seize the Iranian tanker and side with the US in accusing Iran of the vessel attacks in the Gulf. But it is difficult to untangle the issues.
For now, Iran’s increases in its nuclear activity appear incremental and are reversible. Tehran should not push the limits further, and should refrain from aggressive posturing. It must respect the international principle of freedom of navigation. A rerun of the “Tanker war” of the 1980s will benefit no one.
FINANCIAL TIMES EDITORIAL