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The Trump administration’s unbending policy toward Iran was supposed to force the foe into submission. President Barack Obama’s conciliatory caresses, we were told, had only emboldened the Iranians. President Donald Trump’s strength and toughness would leave them no choice but to capitulate.

Well, it was nice to think so. But now the administration accuses Iran of attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and Tehran has announced plans to violate the nuclear deal that the U.S. renounced. Iran is not backing down. It’s digging in and acting out.

That response should confirm that Trump and his advisers don’t know how to get their way. Curiously, the rulers in Tehran reject taking steps that make them look weak. They look for ways to show their resolve.

Maybe the president and his aides didn’t see this coming. Or maybe what they predicted would happen is not what they were hoping to get. Instead of making Iran less of a threat, they have made it more of one – which is a positive development only if you want an excuse to go to war.

The 2015 pact signed by Obama was designed to keep Iran at least a year away from being able to make a nuclear bomb. Trump killed the deal because it would allow Iran to escape these constraints in 2031. By killing the deal, he allowed Iran to escape right away.

The regime has chosen to do so by moving to produce and stockpile more enriched uranium than the agreement allowed. The regime said it may also enrich the material to even higher levels than before, putting it closer to being able to produce bomb fuel.

At this juncture, Trump might reflect on the value of established credibility. If Americans have learned you can be trusted to tell the truth, they are more likely to believe you when you need their support. But after spending four years in a nonstop flurry of brazen lies, you can hardly expect them to take your word for anything.

The evidence that Iran attacked a pair of tankers with mines is less than airtight. The owner of the attacked Japanese vessel said the damage was inflicted by a flying object, not a mine. The fact that Iranian sailors were photographed removing an unexploded device from the ship does not prove that they put it there. If the Iranians were keen on not being caught, this was a strange way to go about it.

Even if we could trust Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others not to lie about what the Iranians did, there is no reason to trust their response. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have long advocated regime change in Tehran, and you know what? They just might use these events to advance their plans.

Nor can we put much faith in their competence. Trump hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed defense secretary since last year; his acting secretary just resigned; and his new acting secretary will have no grace period.

This is the same administration that set out to make North Korea surrender its nuclear arsenal, and that arsenal is still growing. With Trump in charge of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban now control more of the country than they have since we arrived in 2001.

Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran, and it’s conceivable that he means it. But his aggressive tone and tactics may provoke miscalculations by Iran that lead to direct hostilities.

According to The Washington Post, “Pompeo has privately delivered warnings intended for Iranian leaders that any attack by Tehran or its proxies resulting in the death of even one American service member will generate a military counterattack, U.S. officials said.” That pledge gives any rogue group the power to enmesh us in war.

An all-out conflict with Iran would not end well. The enemy might survive an onslaught, inflict a significant number of casualties and bog us down among a hostile people. Or the regime could collapse, creating a vast ungoverned space that would attract the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups.

Best-case scenario: We win a smashing victory and then enjoy the privilege of occupying the country, which has more than three times the land mass of Iraq and twice the population. Sound tempting?

The U.S. relationship with Iran has long been a problem. But there is no problem so bad that Trump can’t make it worse.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, October 19, 2010. REUTERS/Khamenei.ir

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