(June 20, 2019 / JNS) Tensions escalated once again this week following a series of moves by Tehran aimed at provoking the Trump administration as economic sanctions continue to afflict the Iranian regime.
On Wednesday evening, Iran shot down a U.S. drone—a RQ-4A Global Hawk that was flying in international airspace above the Strait of Hormuz, though Iran claimed it was flying above its own airspace. In doing so, Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) top commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, said his country is "completely ready for war."
Whether that is threat, bluff or challenge remains to be seen.
"U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (or BAMS-D) ISR aircraft was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile system while operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 11:35 p.m. GMT on June 19, 2019," said U.S. Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday that "Iran made a very big mistake."
Iran made a very big mistake!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2019
In remarks later to the press, Trump said that the drone attack was likely "a mistake made by somebody who shouldn't have been doing what they did."
"I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it. We'll be able to report back and you'll understand exactly what happened," he said. "It was a very foolish move. That I can tell you."
"In the last 24 hours, Iran has intensified its aggression against the United States and against all of us," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "And I repeat my call for all peace-loving countries to stand by the United States in its effort to stop Iranians' aggression. Israel stands by the United States on this."
Kyle Shideler, director of the Counter-Islamist Grid, a research organization that documents and counters local Islamist activities, told JNS: "This appears to be another in a series of provocative acts by the Iranian regime. The Iranians wish to hurt U.S. interests in the region and increase the cost for the U.S. to continue to apply economic pressure to the regime."
Wednesday's incident occurred less than a week after Iran allegedly attacked two tankers—one carrying oil and the other transferring a freight of methanol—in the Gulf of Oman near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied responsibility for the incident.
"Iran is clearly continuing to play a dangerous game as it follows the revolutionary script it laid out in 1979. Neither the U.S. nor Iran wants a full-fledged war," Security Studies Group senior fellow Matthew Brodsky told JNS on Thursday. "The question is whether the sides can manage the escalation and what steps Washington needs to take to re-establish a level of deterrence."
Washington also announced sending an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf this week and the Patriot air-defense system will be sent to the Middle East in an attempt to deter Tehran.
This is on top of the 1,500 troops, Patriot missile battery and two warships the United States announced in May will be sent to the Middle East in response to the Iranian threat. A sizeable number of those troops, however, were already stationed there.
A Pentagon spokesperson said on Wednesday that the United States "is not interested in a confrontation with Iran, but is prepared to defend its forces and interests in the Middle East."
'Iran has not responded in a diplomatic fashion'
Eli Gold, president of Gold Institute for International Strategy, said "Iran is beginning to realize the dismantling of JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or 2015 nuclear deal], as well as the effects of increased U.S. sanctions. Through attacks on the ships as well as their taking out a U.S. drone, Iran is trying to salvage whatever significance they may have in the region."
He said that Iran may also "be counting on the past U.S. presidents who may have been reluctant to respond to aggression like this, but I don't believe they realize President Trump will not shy away from a decisive response. While the American people may be war-weary, they, too, don't take lightly an attack on the U.S. or our interests."
"These attacks will almost certainly continue, as well as grow in brazenness until Washington is able to respond in a way that can deter Iran," Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Behnam Ben Taleblu told JNS on Thursday.
"Iran usually does not engage in direct military conflict," he continued. "Rather, it has a penchant for deniable and indirect attacks, making attribution and marshaling a response even harder."
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that senior leadership in Congress will be briefed on the situation in Iran, but noted that the American people have "no appetitive" to go to war with Iran.
Indeed, Democrats have expressed alarm over the possibility of the Trump administration embarking on a battle with Iran. Even some Republicans have also expressed concern over the administration's tone and approach.
"Rather than force Iran back to the negotiating table, the administration's policy is increasing the chances of miscalculation, which then would bring the United States and Iran closer to a military conflict," said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, where U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook on Wednesday defended the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign on Iran and its cumulative sanctions. That began with the United States withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, along with reimposing sanctions lifted under the agreement in addition to enacting new ones.
"Our policy is at its core an economic and diplomatic one," said Hook. "But Iran has not responded to this in a diplomatic fashion; it has responded to it with violence. We very much believe that Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy—not with terror, bloodshed and extortion."
The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force does not cover Iran, though the AUMF includes Al-Qaeda.
"There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Al-Qaeda," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in April. "They have hosted Al-Qaeda. They have permitted Al-Qaeda to transit their country."
While U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) acknowledged such a link, he added that the AUMF was unnecessary "to respond to an attack, and to prevent one if it's imminent."
Nonetheless, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Politico on Tuesday that the United States should respond militarily to Iran's hostile acts.
"There are more than ample targets that can deter Iran from this kind of malicious behavior, whether it's naval bases or munition storage or refining capabilities," he said, adding that doing so should "inflict enough pain on Tehran that they realize that we're not going to tolerate these kind of attacks on the high seas."
In the aftermath of attacks by Iran, "how Washington responds here is key. It must responsibly convey escalation dominance, signal resolve and establish deterrence all without begetting another response," said Taleblu.
"I would be surprised if the Trump administration has no kinetic response," said Brodsky. "In the meantime, we'll see a lot of diplomatic activity and, I imagine, the shifting of some military hardware in the region."
"It would be nice to have our European allies on board with us when we consider any response, but they are the actual target of Iran's strategy, which is to create enough fear in Europe that it translates into pressure on the U.S. to get back into the nuclear agreement or ease some of the sanctions pressure," he added. "I don't think the Trump administration will fall for that, nor should we want them to."
Shideler said, "I think the president should be prudent in responding to these provocations in a measured way, that makes clear we will not tolerate Iranian aggression, but we should act on our own timeline and not be provoked into acting rashly by Iranian belligerence."
"Iran does not want a war with the United States," former Israeli Defense Forces Sgt. Benjamin Anthony told JNS. "However, it recognizes that it's essential interests are in jeopardy."
However, Farzin Nadimi, an assoiate fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, emailed JNS that Trump is "reluctant" to go to war "despite his latest tweet."
"He's under a lot of pressure to do something obviously," he continued. "But what Iran is doing is a measured escalation – they attacked a very important surveillance asset to prove their point that the U.S. is just a paper tiger, but they also did so with an unmanned asset, to make sure there's no loss of life."
'Efforts to sow chaos and violence'
A diplomatic source told CNN that the European Union "will not be quick to act here. Don't expect sanctions to fall into place."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Iran on Tuesday to uphold the stipulations of the 2015 nuclear deal or else face repercussions. "We are pushing for Iran to keep to [the nuclear accord]. If that is not the case, there will, of course, be consequences," she said, without specifying what the ramifications would be.
While Germany has sanctioned Iranian airline Mahan Air, it has taken favorable steps towards the Islamic Republic.
Along with the United Kingdom and France, it helped create the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or Instex, a financial mechanism, to evade U.S. economic penalties on Tehran.
Meanwhile, Israel, which faces Iran forces in Syria and Iranian-backed terror groups in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, sees Iran as sowing chaos in the region.
"Wherever you look in the region, you see evidence of Iran's aggression," Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon told JNS on Thursday. "The escalation in recent weeks is entirely due to U.S. sanctions having a strong effect."
"The regime is doubling down on its efforts to sow chaos and violence in an attempt to distract from the pressure it is under," he continued. "It is trying to blackmail the Europeans and the international community into relieving pressure. We must not let that happen."
Still, some U.S. figures see all this escalation as a tactic by Iran to bring back negotiations.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Thursday that the Iranians are "trying to bring Trump back to the negotiating table through intimidation," and that "they're trying to use hostile acts as the means to do that."
Taleblu echoed that sentiment, but warned that Wednesday's move signals that "Iran is becoming increasingly comfortable with the assumption that the Trump administration will only respond with sanctions."
"Sanctions against the regime are extremely biting and the increased cooperation between the U.S., Israel and the Sunni Arab world is strengthening and increasingly threatening to the aims of Iran," said Anthony.
"The Iranians are therefore sending a clear message," he continued. "They don't intend to surrender their growing dominance in the Middle East and they are willing to go to increased lengths in order to protect their interests."
Anthony warned, "They should be careful however. Acts like this could drag them toward a war that they do not want, against an adversary that would defeat them – resoundingly."