Iranian forces shot down a US drone in the Gulf this week, at around 11:35pm GMT on 19 June, and since then the world has been waiting to see how far US President Donald Trump and his administration will go in escalating the tensions between the US and Iran.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps called the drone an “intruding American spy drone” and said it had shot it down. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif tweeted that the drone “took off from the UAE in stealth mode and violated Iranian airspace,” but the US military said Iran’s claims were “false” since the drone was flying over the Strait of Hormuz in international airspace.
Iran has said it will soon resume enriching uranium if there is no progress on the international nuclear deal with Tehran and in a challenge to the US that has imposed harsh sanctions on the country and opposes re-negotiating the 2015 agreement.
The attack on the US drone is being seen as an additional provocation to the US, and it takes little to realise that the move has been seen as an invitation to beat the war drums by some in Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Iran, called on Trump to engage in “dialogue” with Iran, warning that war “would be a catastrophe for the region at a minimum.”
Some airlines have changed their routes to avoid flying over airspace controlled by Iran, and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had told US carriers to do the same until further notice.
Trump, famous for his aggressive rhetoric on Iran, found “it hard to believe it was intentional” in a reference to the shooting down of the drone, however. His “feeling” was that “it was a mistake made by somebody who should not have been doing” what he was doing, he said.
The US military described the incident as an “unprovoked attack,” a term that Trump did not use. US national security advisor John Bolton also spoke with a firmness missing from Trump’s discourse.
Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguably the key enemy of the Islamic Republic in the region, Bolton warned Iran not to “mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness” as no one had given it a “hunting license in the Middle East”.
Trump used his favourite tool of communication, Twitter, to reveal that he had cancelled an operation against Iran in the wake of the incident due to concerns about casualties.
“On Monday, they shot down an unmanned drone flying above international waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on three different sites when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a general. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,” Trump tweeted.
For Trita Parsi, an expert consulted by western and Asian governments on Iran, Trump and his advisors do not see eye to eye on what to do about Iran.
His ordering an operation and then cancelling it “confirms that Trump is not inclined to go to war, but the strategy his advisors have convinced him of, one of maximum pressure, is nevertheless designed by these advisors to force Trump into doing so,” he said.
Trump should consider surrounding himself with new advisors who “share his scepticism about war,” he added.
He highlighted the connection between the debate and the message that Iran is trying to send to the Trump administration. “It very much depends on whether the drone was in Iranian airspace or not.
If it was, then it’s a clear signal that they will defend themselves. If it wasn’t, the most likely signal is that the Iranians are declaring that Trump cannot wage economic warfare without risking military warfare,” he said.
“If he continues the maximum pressure policy, the most likely outcome is war,” he added, explaining that in his view the risk of war was very high, especially since Trump has “intensified his war against the Iranian economy,” which sooner or later will lead to an Iranian response.
Yet, Trump continues to play the game in the way of sanctions against Iran, telling reporters in Washington on Monday that he would impose sanctions on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the “one who is ultimately responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime.”
“Who knows what is going to happen,” Trump was quoted as saying. “I can only tell you we cannot let Iran ever have a nuclear weapon.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has previously said that Washington has imposed sanctions on more than 80 per cent of Iran’s economy.
About 1,000 banking and financial institutions, persons, ships and aircrafts have been exposed to the American policy of economic punishment, and the US also banned buying iron, steel, copper and aluminum from Iran in May.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi asked on Monday ahead of Trump’s announcement “are there any other sanctions left for the US to impose on Iran?”
In addition to the economic warfare, the Trump administration is apparently also counting on a cyber one. US officials told the news agency AP this week that with “approval from Trump, US military cyber-forces have launched a strike against Iranian military computer systems that are linked to its rocket and missile launchers,” disabling them.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political science professor at Syracuse University in the US, does not believe a regional war is likely, however.
“A war with Iran with its vast area, huge population and military resources would be costly for anyone. So, they will be careful not to engage Iran. Similarly, Iran is not interested in a war, considering the poor state of its economy and the lack of any enthusiasm for war among its citizens,” he said.
With regard to the nuclear crisis, the Iranians would be interested in negotiations, but “not before raising the cost for the US and all the other parties involved to ensure that they can lessen the pressure on themselves.”
Advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Hesameddin Ashena said on Monday on Twitter that the “US offer for negotiations with no preconditions is not acceptable while sanctions and threats continue.”
“If they want something beyond the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal], they should offer something beyond the JCPOA with international guarantees,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pompeo started a visit to Saudi Arabia for talks on Iran on Monday, including discussing building an international coalition that would include Asian and European states.
It is hard to know how much support he will succeed in securing. But it shows that all the options are still on the table for the American side.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Closer to war with Iran?