Trump administration steps back from its own brinkmanship

Hakki Uygur

After months of sabre rattling, the US government pulled back from a deeper crisis of its own making. But it remains to be seen whether this is a tactical retreat or an opportunity for a new way of thinking. Iran’s air defence missile systems shooting down a high-tech US military drone south of the Gulf on Thursday, June 20 is the latest example of increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran over the past year.

In the hours following the incident, the US military denied that an attack took place, but shortly after it claimed that its drone had been shot down over international waters. Political reactions to the incident quickly followed. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif shared the coordinates of the drone, which was shot near Iran’s Mobarak village. Other Iranian officials were quick to reiterate that violation of the country’s land, air and sea borders are a red line, and they would be protected no matter the cost.

Trump, on the other hand, tweeted that “Iran made a huge mistake,” but it is being reported that after a conference with leaders of Congress he changed his mind on a limited retaliatory strike. The US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018; heavy sanctions on Iran; the influence of global trade wars; Trump’s aggressive attitude; and Iran’s major commercial partners EU, China and India abiding by the sanctions have put Iran in a very difficult position. The latest statement came from the country’s minister of oil, BijanZangana, who said it was difficult to explain to the people the country’s current predicament because they don’t see explosions and bloody bodies on the streets, adding that the current situation is more critical than even the eight-year period of the Iran-Iraq War.

Although the sanctions came into effect a short time ago, all main economic indicators are deteriorating rapidly, and it is predicted that the country will have difficulty even in providing basic supplies. Iranian authorities have announced in a number of statements before the implementation of sanctions that if Iran cannot sell oil, then no one can sell oil originating from the Gulf.

Therefore, it was not surprising that after the attacks in Fujairah last month against Saudi, UAE and Norwegian tankers it was Iran which first came to mind as the suspect behind the attacks. The attacks continued when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for mediation talks, and Iranian leader Khamenei in a way had effectively responded to Trump without uttering a word.

Attacks against the US diplomatic presence and oil companies in Iraq are also increasing day by day, and the efforts of the Iraqi politicians to mediate have not yet achieved the desired results. While Iran’s main demand is mitigation of sanctions and particularly maintaining exemptions for oil sales, the US says it will not take such a step unless direct bilateral negotiations begin.

Therefore, the gap between the demands of the two sides is the biggest obstacle to a compromise. Since the crisis began, many observers have stated that Iran would not just unresponsively accept economic sanctions and would heighten tension in the area where it has experience and success.

The idea that the Trump administration cannot risk and afford a new war before the US elections has become popularly accepted in Tehran. For this reason, Iran has identified its central strategy as increasing pressure on the Trump administration, which has repeatedly stressed that it does not want a new war, to gain concessions.

Following the Fujairah attacks, the US administration, by referring the matter to an independent review commission, demonstrated that it does not seek a military conflict. Following the attacks, the US, instead of saying “interests of the US and its allies,” stated “if the US presence is targeted,” which has the implication that the Iranians could target regional elements of the anti-Iran campaign, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Therefore, it is believed that Iran will continue similar actions against countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has already put serious pressure on oil prices and maritime insurance policies. It is crucial to examine some of the actors suggesting that the Iranian crisis is very likely to spiral out of control and result in an all-out conflict.

Trump’s plan of a “new and better nuclear deal” in relation to US policy towards Iran, transformed into demands targeting all regional policies and security infrastructure of Iran due to influence from hawkish Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. And it was suggested that if Tehran fulfilled demands, it could be a normal country. The US designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which is the country’s foremost security organisation and which also has a serious economic footprint in the country, as a foreign terrorist organisation, fueled the idea that Trump actually wanted regime change in Iran, but followed a progressive policy in order to not scare the Iranian people.

This has been repeatedly expressed not only by the radical elements within Iran but also by President Rouhani who is seeking to establish closer relations with the West following the nuclear deal and who has been accused of turning a cold shoulder to Russia and China. During Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit to the US, he spoke to FOX TV, known for having close ties to Trump, and asked for an exchange of prisoners, yet he returned empty-handed to Tehran. The control in Iran is now completely in the hands of hardliners.

Right now, these groups prefer an encounter with the United States while Iran is at the peak of its regional power, rather than facing the US in a few years following a potential economic collapse.  On the other hand, anti-Iran hawks have gained a massive amount of influence within the US administration and acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is seen as the only person aside from Trump who opposes a military operation against Iran, has withdrawn from his post.

The replacement of Shanahan by Mark Esper, a leading figure in the weapons industry and a schoolmate of Mark Pompeo, who shares similar views on Iran shows that the administration may not be able to hold its hand much longer. It is peculiar that the Pentagon, which understands Iran’s efficiency in the field and knows it would suffer losses in a possible conflict, is insisting on a comprehensive war with Iran. Finally, Khamenei’s declarations of “neither war nor negotiation”,including aggression against the US and its allies, are likely to get out of hand. It is obvious following the downing of the US drone that Iran has achieved significant success in recent years in the field of defence technologies, but as Russian President Putin pointed out, there is no doubt that a possible conflict would lead to a major catastrophe for the entire region.