Tensions between the US and Iran were ebbing on Friday after US President Donald Trump said he hoped the two countries would not go to war at the end of a fraught week that highlighted the risk of a clash in the Middle East.
EU diplomats who have spent recent days trying to calm tensions expressed relief at Mr Trump’s response to a question on whether the US was going to war with Iran. “I hope not,” the US president replied on Thursday.
But a day later amid speculation about divisions inside his administration Mr Trump muddied his position by tweeting that it “may very well be a good thing!” that Iran does not know what to think.
The week of drama began with attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure claimed by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and included warnings from American officials of unspecified “escalatory action” by Iran and US military deployments to the region.
It concluded with growing calls for Washington and Tehran to set up an emergency contact link to prevent accidental conflagrations.
Iranian leaders have consistently said they do not want war. But a senior member of Iran’s parliament warned that some “third players”, which he did not name, were seeking the “destruction of a big part of the world”.
It may actually be a question of him developing a line. I’m not confident he had thought Iran through very much
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the Iranian parliament’s foreign policy committee, said on Twitter that a “desk has to be set up in Iraq or Qatar” so that Iranian and American officials could communicate and “manage tensions”.
Mr Trump’s declared aversion to war appeared to confirm suspicions that he was less supportive of confronting Iran than hawkish advisers led by John Bolton, US national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state.
Jon Alterman, Middle East director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “It’s not clear whether [Mr Trump] is softening his line or coming to understand the implications of what people thought his line was. It may actually be a question of him developing a line. I’m not confident he had thought Iran through very much.”
The EU’s foreign policy arm declined to respond specifically to Mr Trump. But a spokesperson said: “We have been consistently calling for restraint and against escalation and maintain the position.”
One western diplomat in Tehran said communication between the two sides was worse than that between the US and Soviet Union during the cold war. “Some messages are sent via countries like Oman and Switzerland, but this is not enough,” he said.
The only regular communication was between the US navy and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which the Trump administration branded as a terrorist organisation last month.
The spike in tensions has complicated the EU’s efforts to save a landmark 2015 international deal with Iran that gave it relief from painful economic sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Tehran last week threatened to ramp up its atomic programme if the agreement’s signatories did not compensate for economic benefits lost when Mr Trump unilaterally pulled out of the accord a year ago.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, tweeted on Friday that he had held “fruitful discussions” on salvaging the nuclear deal during a trip to China, Japan and India.
Some western diplomats said the US and Iran appeared to have misread the other side’s actions as preparations for an attack. A US decision to withdraw non-essential staff from its diplomatic missions in Iraq, for example, had put Iran on edge, they said.
Ariane Tabatabai, political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, said: “Trump has now made a couple of different comments about wanting to negotiate with the Iranians which was more forthcoming than he has been in the past.”
London’s marine insurance market on Friday upgraded a number of territorial waters in the Gulf to high risk, following sabotage attacks on four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last weekend.
Additional reporting by David Sheppard in London
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