America's standoff with Iran is a textbook case of how to toss out a foreign policy landmine and then step on it.
The origins of this crisis of escalation, which has enveloped an attack on a Saudi Arabian oil facility, are the work of US President Donald Trump and his advisers. Now it might involve the US stumbling into a new Middle East conflict.
Trump launched his response days ago with staunch support for Iran's great rival, tweeting that the US was "locked and loaded depending on verification". Asked on Wednesday if he had seen evidence that Iran is behind the attack, Trump was more restrained, saying: "It is looking that way."
Today, amid reports of debate in the US Administration and in Washington over how to proceed, Trump stuck with his "maximum pressure" policy of targeting Iran's economy by tweeting that he had instructed the Treasury to increase sanctions.
US officials have contended all week that Iran is behind the attack involving cruise missiles and drones on the Aramco oil facility, a strike claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who are involved in a brutal regional war with the kingdom in Yemen to the south.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today called the attack an Iranian "act of war". He previously this week had tweeted: "Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen."
The Saudis have been more careful. A Saudi Foreign Ministry statement had said: "Initial investigations have indicated that the weapons used in the attack were Iranian weapons. Investigations are still ongoing to determine the source of the attack."
Today the Saudis showed weapons debris, with Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki claiming the attacks came from the north and, although the exact launch point was not known, they were "unquestionably sponsored by Iran". But he didn't accuse Tehran of firing or launching the weapons from Iranian territory.
Iran, which has denied involvement, made it clear the crisis is near a line in the sand: "If any action takes place against Iran, the action will be faced by Iran's answer immediately."
Before Trump was elected in 2016, and after much carrot and stick diplomacy from the previous Obama Administration and other countries, Iranian relations with the world were in a safer place.
The Middle Eastern nation had entered into the JCPOA cooperation pact in 2015 after years of mistrust and tough sanctions that hurt its economy. Iran pledged to reduce its uranium stockpiles and other measures while allowing IAEA monitoring supervision in exchange for conditional sanctions relief from the US, EU and UN. Involved were Iran, the US, the EU, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.
That's what patient, detailed, multilateral, planned diplomacy involving many interests can bring - a responsible result of potential wide benefit.
It was a start that could have resulted in further, constructive steps. It could have led to greater integration of Iran into world political and economic affairs and cooperation beyond the nuclear pact.
But the economic benefits to Tehran were initially uneven. In 2016, Iran experienced GDP growth of 12.3 per cent, according to the Bank of Iran. That fell to 3.7 per cent the following year.
And Trump's decision to walk away from the pact in May 2018 and reimpose sanctions last November effectively doomed the deal despite attempts by the other powers to sustain it.
That US action was bound to have foreseeable consequences.
The IAEA had said in March 2018 that Iran was complying with the pact. The Trump Administration went against the advice of a US intelligence assessment that it was working.
Trump also pulled out of the Paris climate change accord. He launched a trade tariff war with China.
He has conducted a highly personalised beat-up-and-then-down-play negotiation track with North Korea over its own nuclear programme and has wafted lavish praise on the country's dictator, Kim Jong-un. Under this process, Kim has achieved his goal of nuclear deterrence, continued missile testing while pushing for US sanctions relief, held summits with Trump, China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin and fashioned a closer relationship with South Korea's leadership.
None of this will have gone unnoticed in Tehran.
Iranian involvement in some form in the Saudi attack would not be surprising. The regime is a complex mix of clerical, hardline military and political factions, including a moderate wing.
Initially it looked as though Tehran might be prepared to wait out Trump's term.
But the economic squeeze has been hard and caused internal political protests. The IMF said that Iran's GDP contracted by 3.9 per cent last year. Inflation rose from 9 per cent in 2017 to 31 per cent in 2018. In May this year, six months of exemptions from US sanctions for countries still buying Iran's oil ended. Also that month, the IAEA said Iran was still sticking to the main parts of the deal. Since July, Iran has steadily announced breaches to its commitments.
From Iran's perspective, it is now involved in an economic battle with the US that appears to have morphed to delivering indirect violent threats. The Saudi attack and earlier lower-level strikes on tankers in the Gulf region could amount to a message that everyone can be made to suffer if this crisis continues.
Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security director of think-tank CNAS, tweeted: "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a direct Iranian hand (not just arming). But I have zero faith in this administration's honesty and use of intelligence. So let's see some evidence."
Former US CIA director John Brennan tweeted: "Iran struck Saudi oil facilities because of sanctions - does he seriously expect more sanctions to deter them? It should be evident to everyone that [Trump] does not have a clue as to how to protect our national security and global stability."
The petty impulse at the origin of all this – Trump's motivation to undo one of the major foreign policy achievements of his predecessor President Barack Obama – points to the chaotic political moment the world is in.
There are far too many leaders in charge of areas where they can cause real damage. Irresponsible chancers are chasing political opportunities. Unstable neo-feudalists are acting out personal power plays. They are all pushing hard against traditional restraints and what's been considered acceptable.
Public dissatisfaction with remote, rule-bound, old-style politics contributed to their rise, but the only way collective messes - such as climate change – have a chance of getting mopped up is through a recognition of collective interest followed by collective action.
Instead, there have been fresh regional flare ups in Hong Kong, Kashmir and the Middle East.
Trump is defending a Saudi crown prince who is widely believed to have been behind the slaying of Washington Post writer Jamal Kashoggi in Istanbul and has caused untold suffering in Yemen. Mohammed bin Salman might be one of the most reckless rulers out there but his ties with the US Administration are tight through Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump initially went so far as to tweet that the US was "waiting to hear from the kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!"
But the Daily Beast reports that Trump has privately asked senior advisers why the Saudis can't "just handle it" themselves.
There is little appetite in some quarters in Washington to help the Saudis. Democrats in Congress and on the presidential trail were quick to remind Trump that authorisation for war is required from the legislative branch after the President's "locked and loaded" comment.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine tweeted: "Trump tore up a diplomatic deal with Iran that even his own advisers said was working. We need to be de-escalating tensions, not barrelling towards an unnecessary war in the Middle East."
Author and anti-Trump Republican, Professor Tom Nichols, tweeted: "I'm not concerned that any one country will knowingly spark a world war. I have plenty of concern that Putin, MBS, Erdogan, and Iran's theocrats - the worst conglomeration of incompetent and morally appalling world leaders in recent history - can bumble their way into one."
The oddest part of this dangerous saga is that the chief US cheerleader for regime change in Iran just got the boot.
Former national security adviser John Bolton will be happy with how events have panned out since.