US strategy on Iran is confused and Washington seems increasingly short of options to avoid escalation, with President Donald Trump saying that the choice between war and diplomacy "could go either way."
"The Trump administration is facing a fork in the road with respect to its own policy," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The US has "deployed an enormous amount of pressure on Iran" and is "well prepared to keep that in place for as long as they deem it necessary," as long as Washington "can avoid escalation and an eruption of a military conflict," Maloney told AFP.
Asked Monday if the US was leaning towards negotiation or conflict, Trump did little to reassure those who prefer the former in resolving one of the most explosive international crises of the day.
"I'm okay either way it goes," said the president, who has imposed punishing sanctions on Tehran while also repeatedly calling for dialogue.
Iran has publicly refused to take part in any talks held under pressure and meanwhile, tensions have mounted with drones shot down, oil tankers mysteriously attacked and ships seized by both Tehran and US ally Britain.
According to Maloney, Iran is "trying to get a sense of where the red lines for the administration are."
- 'Maximum risks, minimal results' -
But so far, despite tough talk -- "We are ready for the absolute worst," Trump said Monday -- the president has repeatedly emphasized his desire to avoid a new US military intervention, and spoke publicly about having called off strikes on Iran at the last minute in June.
"It makes the United States look really feeble," said Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council, another think tank in Washington.
And this creates a dangerous situation, as incidents could continue in the Gulf, increasing the risk of a slide toward conflict that both sides say they want to avoid.
The problem, according to Slavin, is that Trump painted himself into a corner last year when he pulled the United States out of a 2015 deal with Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Iranian escalation "was predictable, especially when the decision was made not to issue any new waivers for Iran to export oil. It was predictable that Iran would escalate in response," Slavin said.
Many experts and diplomats agree: on the Iranian side, the current tensions aim, above all, to get a little breathing room on the economic front, because US sanctions are pummeling the country's economy.
Reinstating some exemptions on oil sales, or at least easing implementation of the ban, would help defuse the crisis.
But Washington has sent just the opposite signal by imposing punitive measures against a Chinese company accused of continuing to buy Iranian crude, a decision applauded by advocates of a tougher approach to Tehran.
The International Crisis Group, an organization dedicated to the prevention of conflict, has meanwhile denounced Trump's "maximum pressure strategy," saying it "has produced maximum risks and minimal results."
- A new deal? -
In fact, many observers continue to wonder about the motive of Trump, who admitted to having agreed to a meeting between Senator Rand Paul, an opponent of US military interventions, and Iran's top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Is there a path to a new agreement, as the president seems to think?
"I think the president wants a deal and he's dangerously deluded about how easy it is to construct a deal on highly technical issues," Maloney said.
Slavin, meanwhile, said categorically that if the goal is "to get a new deal, it's not gonna succeed."
The United States can still toughen its punitive measures, targeting foreign companies that continue to trade with Iran, the country's civilian nuclear program, and even figures such as Zarif.
But in terms of sanctions, some believe that a peak has been reached with the end of oil exemptions: "The rest is all in the same vein... but there's not much more you can do on the economic front," said Slavin.
If the only goal is weakening Iran and destroying the nuclear deal, "we will not have a good result," she said.
"We'll have Iran behave more like a rogue, not less."