Tensions With Iran Reach the Point of Inevitability

Even though both sides insist they don’t want war, the existing tensions, combined with Iran’s anger at being denied the benefits of the nuclear agreement, mean that one miscalculated provocation could lead to a larger conflagration.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET

Something like this was bound to happen.

The U.S. Navy destroyed an Iranian drone over the Strait of Hormuz after President Donald Trump said it came within “threatening” range and ignored “multiple calls to stand down.”

Trump said the action taken by the USS Boxer, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, was “defensive.” “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions against vessels operating in international waters,” Trump said.

The confrontation came amid escalating provocations by the Iranian government, lashing out against the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. Still, Trump has been reluctant to use force— on a recent occasion pulling back on a strike after Iran shot down an American drone, saying the U.S. response wouldn’t have been proportionate. Today’s action allows the Trump administration to appear tough, but, given the tensions, also risks escalation in an already volatile region.

The Trump administration has coupled its tough talk against Iran with intensified sanctions designed to cripple Iran’s economy and target its proxies. As part of this effort, the Treasury Department sanctioned Thursday a network of front companies and agents that it said were "involved in the procurement of sensitive materials for sanctioned elements of Iran’s nuclear program," as well as two leaders of Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Other aspects of the Iranian economy have also been sanctioned and the Revolutionary Guard Corps has been labeled a terrorist organization. The moves underscored that despite its tough rhetoric, the Trump administration's preferred method of confronting the Iranians remains in the relatively mundane world of sanctions policy.

Still, Benjamin H. Friedman, a policy director at Defense Priorities, said Thursday's action set the conditions “for a miscalculation that could quickly spiral into a broader war.”

“Maximum pressure has harmed Iran’s economy, but it has failed in its aims—it has encouraged Iran to restart its nuclear weapons program and increase its hardline polices," he said in a statement.

Besides, the Iranian downing of U.S. drone, Washington has accused the Islamic Republic of attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Meanwhile, Iran has increased its uranium enrichment activity to a level that imperils its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal which the Trump administration withdrew from last year. The deal’s European signatories have been unable to provide Iran with sufficient economic relief.

Those European powers —the U.K., France and Germany—for now remain in lockstep over the need to keep the agreement alive for as long as possible.

On Monday, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt—one of the two candidates to replace Theresa May as prime minister—confirmed that the U.K. continued to support the nuclear deal but warned the Iranians needed to stick to their side of the bargain regardless of the U.S. decision to withdraw.

“There can be no ‘partial’ compliance,” Hunt tweeted. “You are either on path to a nuclearised Middle East or not…” But it’ll no doubt be harder for European powers to insist the pact can be resurrected, as long as military provocations continue and Iran continues to chip away at its nuclear-deal commitments.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said in a statement it was unlikely the shooting down of the drone would lead to "World War III," adding that Iran’s goal was to get “America to cease its maximum pressure campaign” and ... “return to the” nuclear deal.

“While the regime in Tehran will need to recalibrate in the short term, it’s likely that Iran will continue to escalate in other theaters, be it across the Gulf region or in cyberspace,” he said.

Last month Trump considered airstrikes on Iran after it shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, but pulled back at the last minute because of the possibility of civilian casualties. At the time, Trump said killing Iranians wouldn’t be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

The U.S. action today satisfies Trump’s cautious approach to military action. The president, despite some of his more hawkish advisers’ instincts to the contrary, has adamantly opposed any action that could metastasize into a wider conflict. (His major intervention in Syria only came after the Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians, including children.) In the ongoing tensions with Iran, he has preferred to let sanctions do the talking while signaling he is open to dialogue. Yet, Iran’s continued provocations have become hard to ignore. This week it seized a Panamanian-flagged, UAE-based tanker and accused its crew of smuggling fuel. Last week, the U.K. defense ministry said Iran tried to block passage of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz; that’s after British forces seized an Iranian tanker that they said was headed to Syria in violation of European sanctions against the Assad regime.

Even though both sides—the U.S. and Iran—insist they don’t want war, the preexisting tensions in the region, combined with Iran’s anger at being denied the benefits of the nuclear agreement, mean that one miscalculated provocation can lead to a larger conflagration.

“We live in a very dangerous environment,” Zarif said Thursday at the United Nations before news of the drone was made public. “The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of an abyss.”

Tom McTague in London and Mike Giglio in Washington, D.C., contributed.