DUBAI — With a confrontation simmering between Iran and United States in the Persian Gulf region, some Iranians say they feel hemmed in all sides and see various forces eager to stoke tensions that could lead to war.
“We know that there are three [main] groups that want to provoke Iran and the United States into a military confrontation: hardliners in Iran, radicals in the United States, and Saudi Arabia and Israel,” said Farzad, 48, an engineer at a power plant in Iran’s Bushehr port on the Persian Gulf.
Farzad said he believes that both Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Trump are being egged on by more hawkish advisers, including officials in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Tensions in the Middle East flared in recent weeks following attacks on six commercial tankers, which U.S. officials have blamed on Iran. While Iran has denied responsibility, some experts suspect the incidents were an Iranian reaction to mounting U.S. pressure, including economic sanctions.
If Iran carried out the attacks, it is not because of pressure from the United States,” said Farzad, who was reached by telephone. “It is because of the economic and political benefit some groups in Iran would have if there is a war. Such acts are harmful to Iranians and for the government as a whole.”
Farzad, like other Iranians interviewed for this article, spoke without using full name so that he could discuss the Iranian government, which often represses dissent.
Tensions have spiked after the Trump administration withdrew last year from a landmark treaty world powers negotiated with Iran aimed at preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. has instead ramped up a “maximum pressure campaign” to isolate Iran.
Iranian officials have accused the U.S. of “economic terrorism,” and on Monday Iran said it would boost its stockpile of low-enriched uranium beyond limits sets by the nuclear pact.
The most recent escalation came last week when a pair of tankers suffered explosions near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a key waterway for global energy shipments. The attacks, which struck Japanese- and Norwegian-owned vessels, were carried out as Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was on a high-stakes diplomatic visit to Tehran.
“It doesn’t many any sense that Iran would carry out such a mission since, before anything, it would sabotage its own reputation in the region,” said Leila, 31, an employee at a food distribution company in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Leila said she thinks it’s more likely that either Saudi Arabia or Israel, Iran’s chief foes in the region, “planned the attack and faked evidence” to “show the world that Iran is untrustworthy.”
To support her theory, Leila noted that the attack happened “right on the day that Iran was hosting Shinzo Abe and telling him that they only want the [nuclear deal] back.”
As evidence of Iranian culpability, the U.S. Central Command has released videos and photographs it said were of an Iranian patrol boat approaching one of the tankers and removing an unexploded mine.
European officials have called on the United States to provide more evidence of Iranian culpability and urged restraint on all sides. Also Monday, the Pentagon said it was deploying about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East.
But even as some Iranians worried about military action, others who were interviewed said that they understood Iran’s decision to reduce its commitments under the nuclear agreement, which had promised Iran relief from U.S. sanctions in return for adhering to nuclear restrictions.
Now, with a near-total U.S. embargo in place, Iran’s economy is suffering, oil sales are down and the pact’s other signatories, including European nations, have struggled to maintain investments in Iran.
Their country is isolated, these Iranians said, and has few options other than to mount a strong response.
“Maybe if this nuclear problem had never started, things would not have escalated to this point,” said Fahimeh, a private sector employee in Tehran, referring to Iran’s original pursuit of nuclear energy. “But now that we are here, I can understand why [Iranian] officials have no better option than to threaten uranium enrichment. ”
Farzad, the engineer, said he believes Iran’s threats to increase its enriched uranium “are more severe than the actual steps they are taking in practice.”
Still, he said, “this is a very dangerous move.”
“A show like this only legitimizes the American provocations,” he said.