These kinds of attacks are what Europeans predicted when Mr. Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Affairs. “Most European governments are surprised how long Iran has played the strategic patience card, especially after the increase in American sanctions in November,” she said.
Assuming Iran is behind these attacks, which is not yet certain, she said, “Europe sees this as a calculated, managed and fairly rational response to continual and increased U.S. sanctions pressure. We’ll keep seeing cycles of this escalation, designed to make everyone in the region nervous.” What worries Europeans, she said, is “the likelihood of missteps, miscalculations.”
The Iranians, having lived with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, think they understand “the red buttons,” Ms. Geranmayeh said. “But they also need to send signals that the oil embargo is unacceptable, and they need to make Trump realize this, so you do it through rising oil prices and getting his base nervous about another Mideast war in the run-up to the election. But Iranians could get it wrong.”
Nathalie Tocci, a senior adviser to the European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said, “Before we blame someone, we need credible evidence.” Iranians are deeply rational actors, she said. And for Iran to have attacked a Japanese ship when the Japanese prime minister was in Tehran “is not an especially rational thing to do.”
Ms. Tocci also said that Washington’s policy was having the predictable effect of weakening moderates in Iran and strengthening the hand of hard-liners. As the United States escalates, she said, “the people we work with in Iran are becoming weaker by the day, so we can’t expect retaliatory measures not to take place.”