While the US and Iran seem to be on the knife edge of an armed clash, both have taken time-out to reassess their next steps. Iran has given the West 60 days to ease Trump administration sanctions, while the US after slapping sanctions on Iran’s metal experts has allowed 90 days for them to take effect. It is therefore unlikely that, in the short term, the heightened tension will explode into direct hostilities between the US and Iran, although their proxies and allies are another matter – like, for instance, the 36-hour Palestinian rocket blitz against Israel on May 4 and 5, which claimed four Israeli lives. That event, too, was cut short. Neither Tehran, while ranged face to face against America, nor Cairo, which is deep in the Libyan conflict, have the time, will or funds to spend on a major clash of arms in the Gaza Strip.
Amid the buildup of US military strength in the Gulf – the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier crossed into the Red Sea on Thursday, May 9 – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent no more than four hours on talks in Baghdad on the safety of US troops in Iraq with President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Abdil Abdul-Mahdi on Wednesday. Both are in touch with the Iranian Al Qods chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Pompeo asked them to convey to Tehran the message that if US forces or its allies in the region came to harm, the Trump administration would respond with direct military action on Iranian soil.
Because the dialogue he initiated with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is in crisis, President Trump felt obliged to show he is not shy of using military muscle in pursuit of his sanctions against Iran. Kim has broken off diplomacy with Washington after complaining in vain to Chinese and Russian leaders that Trump and Pompeo were too tough. Kim watches every US move on Iran’s nuclear program like a hawk, just as the ayatollahs keep track of Washington’s handling of North Korea.
While playing for time, the muscle-flexing between Washington and Tehran continues. On Wednesday, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani gave the world powers who signed the 2015 nuclear pact up until July 1 to ease US sanctions, or else Tehran would restart its nuclear enrichment program. It took President Trump only hours to hit back with an executive order to slap sanctions on Iran’s metals (iron, steel, aluminum and copper) exports, second only to petroleum as a source of Iranian revenue. But the 90-day period for winding down was the US answer to Iran’s 60-day deadline.