Confrontation with Iran has been one of the hallmarks of the US foreign policy under the administration of President Donald Trump. In the last two months, this confrontation has been edging slowly towards open war by miscalculation.
In the context of heightened tensions in the Gulf, the unthinkable happened on 20 June. Iran announced that it had downed what it called a “drone spy plane” that violated its airspace. US Central Command immediately rejected the Iranian claim insisting that the drone was flying over international waters.
The downing of the American drone was a very dangerous and provocative move on the part of the Iranians. However, the decision to shoot the drone was meant to send three messages.
One for the Iranian people, to shore up public morale against an unprecedented American strategy of maximum pressure which the Iranian government equated with “economic terrorism”.
The other two messages were meant for the world. The most important one of these was addressed to Washington; that Iran is a power that will not buckle under American pressures, including military ones.
Furthermore, the downing of the drone proved that the Iranians have air defence systems that are advanced and precise, to the surprise of the Pentagon. Inherent in this message was the idea that Iran is not afraid of the imposing American strike force that has been deployed in and around the Gulf.
Incidentally, two days before the targeting of the American drone, the outgoing acting US secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, announced that the Pentagon would deploy 1,000 more troops in the region.
The third message was meant for American partners and allies in the Middle East, including Israel, of course. Tehran was telling them that war with Iran would have serious consequences for regional security and stability.
After the shooting down of the American unmanned spy plane the world awaited a US retaliation that would fall short of an open military offensive against Iran.
In, fact when Trump was asked the same day at the White House about the US response, he said, “You will find out.” This reply was interpreted as a sure sign that the US would retaliate in a matter of hours.
As the world was much surprised by the shooting down of the American drone, it was also surprised by American inaction.
On 21 June, Trump tweeted that he had called off a military strike against three Iranian military targets 10 minutes before the initiation of the strikes, because he learned from an American general that the strikes would cause the death of 150 Iranians.
He believed that the US retaliation would be disproportionate to the downing of an unmanned plane.
The decision to call off the strikes and regardless of the “humane” reason given by the American president could prove to be a game changer in the Gulf and the Middle East.
It proves without the shadow of a doubt that the US — and despite all military bravado coming out of the White House and in the statements attributed to both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton —has no stomach for going to war against Iran, at least for now.
If this is the case, people in the Middle East would doubt American resolve to defend them in case they enter into a direct military confrontation with Iran.
This is hypothetical, because Tehran is content to wage small-scale attrition wars against its enemies in the region through well-trained and well-equipped pro-Iranian militias.
The Houthis in Yemen have attacked targets within Saudi Arabia by missiles and drones, and Hizbullah in Lebanon has, according to Israeli estimates, more than 150,000 missiles that could rain on Israel if Iran is attacked.
No one for sure knows what is on the mind of President Trump as far as the endgame with Iran is concerned. How far is he willing to go one year before the presidential elections cycle begins in the US? So far, the campaign of maximum pressure has not borne fruit.
On the contrary it has helped, unintentionally, in marginalising moderates in the Iranian political establishment and enabling hardliners whose position and role have been boosted by the downing of the American drone.
What would President Trump do after the Omani government received a message from Tehran on 21 June, to the effect that the Iranian Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would not negotiate with the United States?
Thanks to a muddled American approach, not only to Iran but also to other Middle East questions, among which the Palestinian question, Iran has gained the upper hand and much-needed self confidence in exercising its regional power and in its policies of protecting itself in the face of the maximum pressure campaign waged by the United States.
Four days before the drone incident, the spokesman of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency announced on 17 June that effective 27 June, the amount of Iranian reserves in enriched uranium would go beyond what was agreed upon in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July 2015 with the P5+1. The agreed amount is 300 kilogrammes.
From all indications it is difficult to imagine Iran giving in to the United States, either today or tomorrow. It seems to me that they have decided to wait out the American presidential elections next year.
It is of course a long wait, but Iranian policymakers believe that time is on their side and if there is anyone who should climb down the cliff it is President Trump and his national security team.
Probably this position has been inspired by the same logic that had guided Tehran back in 1980 when they decided to wait for a new American president to enter office to release the American diplomats that had been taken hostage under former president Jimmy Carter’s watch.
The hostages were freed once president Ronald Reagan was sworn-in. The reason was that the Carter administration had ordered a military operation in April 1980 to free the American diplomats, but the mission dismally failed in the Iranian desert. One of the reasons why Carter had not been re-elected was precisely the failure of this rescue operation.
The White House should search for an exit strategy from the brinkmanship it started last year by withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and setting 12 conditions for Iran to honour before ending the sanctions regime it has imposed on Iran.
The cumulative results of this American approach to Iran have led the world to the present-day situation in the Gulf.
All international powers have called on both Iran and the United States to de-escalate and find common ground on which the two countries could negotiate through third parties a way out of the dangerous situation in the Gulf and the larger Middle East.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erratic brinkmanship