The crisis over Iran, associated with the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, more often referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal signed by Iran, the US, Russia, China, Britain and France), continues to aggravate...

Ivan Andrianov, political analyst, exclusively for IAC

The crisis over Iran, associated with the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, more often referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal signed by Iran, the US, Russia, China, Britain and France), continues to aggravate.

On May13, it was reported that two Saudi Arabian tankers had been attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. One of them was underway to be loaded at the Saudi port of Ras Tanura, while the other transported oil to the United States. The State Department’s response was predictable and almost instantaneous. Without waiting for the results of investigation, the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo suggested rather confidently in his interview to the American radio host Hugh Hewitt that Iran had been behind these attacks.

Notably that the American intelligence community acknowledged that no convincing evidence of the IRGC’s (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) involvement was found.

On June 13, another attack at vessels in the Strait of Oman was reported. The attack targeted carrying tankers, Front Altair with 75,000 tons of crude oil and Kokuka Courageous with methanol on board. After the explosions, part of the crew was evacuated by the Iranian military and the US immediately blamed Tehran for the incident. Moreover, a video record was provided for this case, which showed people attaching a mine to the board of one vessel.

However, this “evidence” proved to be of extremely poor quality, and it seems impossible to determine whether the IRGC actually tried to attack the tanker. International observers, including NATO partners of the US, also pointed out the questionable validity of that video.

The next, even more disturbing news was the report about the US drone shot down by Iran. Special emphasis is put on the fact that the destroyed drone was a strategic R-4 Global Hawk and this was not the only one aircraft within Iran’s airspace at that time point. This UAV was followed by a reconnaissance Boeing P-8 with 35 people on board. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, underlined that the other aircraft could have been shot down too.

Note that this US$200-million R-4 Global Hawk became the first unit shot since this UAV type has been in operation. Moreover, it was destroyed by the Iranian-made air defense system, which indicates a significant level of development of the IRI MIC.

It is quite obvious that a group in Trump’s inner circle advocating a radical solution to the Iranian issue has got a boost. According to experts of Business Monitor International analytical service (a structural unit of Fitch Solutions, also represented in the US) it includes both John Bolton and Michael Pompeo. However, Donald Trump favors the economic strangling of Tehran and against the use of military force.

Given that, he relies on the opinion of heads of American power structures and, chiefly, the Pentagon professionals who understand that a military operation against Iran can not be a short-term event by default, will require huge expenses, will entail great human losses, etc. The President, who intends to run for a second term, does not need it.

However, supporters of military provocation against Tehran, relying on their supporters in the Congress, have not completely abandoned their plans.

In this context, many experts see the attacks on tankers in the Strait of Oman as an attempt to bolster alarmist sentiment on Capitol Hill and this incident may well be a provocation staged by the American or Saudi special services.

Persons who witnessed the last meeting between Secretary of State and Saudi intelligence officials contend that the former insisted that Iraq would probably be the very location, the site used by Iran to attack the Americans. This thesis served Mr Pompeo’s purpose to prove that Washington’s standpoint need backing from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Even more, the US intelligence agencies emphasize that the Iraqi Interior Ministry is infiltrated by persons loyal to Tehran, particularly naming Moustafa Al Kazemi, the INIS director appointed in 2016. Head of Al-Quds is believed to have personally advocated the appointment of Al Kazemi, a member of the influential Shiite Al-Dawa  party, who had been long in exile in Iran. Prior to that, in the 1980s, he focused on recruiting agents for the IRGC in Saddam Hussein’s army. He came back to Iraq in 2003 and personally supervises the contacts with Hezbollah.

Despite the actions of a group of American politicians who are determined to radically resolve the Iranian issue, Trump sticks to an alternative view. The escalating situation can be used by head of the White House to prepare for negotiations, as an instrument for strengthening his position. The US has already used a similar technique against the DPRK, when two aircraft carrier groups were sent to the Korean Peninsula. 

It is revealing that Donald Trump made a personal statement on the cancellation of the planned strike on Iran. According to the official statement of the American leader, the attack was canceled because of possible 150 casualties among the Iranians, which is disproportionate to the downed R-4 Global Hawk drone.

“On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters”, Trump wrote on his Twitter account. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General”, he added.

This version of the US President looks unlikely and appears to be a response to the Iranian military’s goodwill gesture towards the Boeing P-8.

Washington has rarely attempted to minimize casualties in their military strikes and the acceptable number of civilian casualties is extremely high. This can be demonstrated by the case of Syrian Raqqa bombing, when this city was essentially wiped off the map by the actions of the US-led international coalition and the number of civilian casualties has not yet been counted. At that time, Donald Trump has already been head of the White House.

Another important point, which is indicated by both the international and many think tanks, is the time chosen for the attack, June 13, timed to the dates when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tehran. Experts note that the attack could have been staged as a provocation to change the agenda of negotiations. However, it is hard to evaluate whether this step was successful in terms of strengthening the US position in their possible dialogue with the Iranians. What is known is that Tokyo issued a post-visit statement that Iran should comply with the terms of the nuclear deal. The IRI, in turn, requested Shinzō Abe to act as a mediator and facilitate relaxation of tensions with the US.

Japan is one of the countries that play the role of mediator in resolving the Iran-US crisis, as is evidenced by Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Land of the Rising Sun and the subsequent trip of the Japanese Prime Minister to Tehran. The US is reportedly negotiating mediation services with Kuwait, as well.

Tehran is also looking for a mediator, Oman or Kuwait being currently mentioned as possibilities. These countries are already forwarding Iran’s position against war. But Japan is still the main country to work on reducing the degree of tension.

The US position and inconsistent actions of the White House are determined by several factors.

First, Washington is not ready for a real war with Iran, which has a large and combat-capable army. The R-4 Global Hawk downed by Iranian air defense gave evidence that Tehran would not surrender its airspace without a fight, as was the case with the American invasion of Iraq and Libya. On June 9, the IRI tested a new Khordad-15 air defense system capable of tracing up to six targets at a range of 120km.

Second, the beginning of large-scale combat operations in the run-up to the 2020 election and the associated inevitable human losses will be undoubtedly used by the President’s political rivals, which bears a risk of his losing.

Third, the US pressure to make Tehran yield and conclude a new nuclear deal has not produced results. Iran made no concessions, taking an active defensive position.

Fourth, a direct military conflict with Iran will lead to a collapse in the oil market.

The White House took advantage of the emerging tensions and determined (without approval from the Congress) on supplying armaments to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the amount of US$ 8.1 billion.

According to open sources, the UAE will receive 20 RQ-21A Blackjack UAS in a package worth US$ 80 million, 331 guided missiles for Javelin anti-tank systems (US$102 million), APKWS II laser-guided missiles (US$ 900 million), as well MC training services  to the UAE military (US$100 million). The Pentagon will also provide repair and upgrade of Saudi Arabia’s aircraft (around US$ 3 billion).

To conclude with, the current heat of standoff actually revealed the red line, which the US authorities are not ready to cross. Washington does not plan to enter into direct military confrontation and to significantly increase its military forces in the region. Thus, according to official statements, several vessels, 2,500 military servicemen and Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems will go to the Middle East. The White House has also made clear its position towards sharply increasing economic pressure on Iran.

Tehran takes a wait-and-see stance; international experts, including those from Europe and America, agree that the IRI authorities will wait for Trump’s leave hoping that the new US leadership will reconsider its stance on the JCPOA. However, this outcome is highly unlikely. Notably that this Iran’s approach was adopted in Iran not without a hint from the US Democratic Party in the person of former Secretary of State John Kerry, who supposedly has informal contacts with Iranian representatives. However, there is no reliable evidence to support this information.

The escalation of the Iran-US conflict has caused great alarm in international political circles and speculations about the war actions between the two countries have been voiced much more often.

Nevertheless, the fact that the White House refused to strike Tehran after the drone affair suggests that the armed conflict is not to come.

At present, the key determinant of the Iran-US crisis is the possibility of further provocations in the Straits of Oman or Hormuz, as well as in the IRI air space and a certain decline of tension can be expected in their absence. However, this scenario will not lead to the lifting of sanctions by the US.

Analysts agree that under the alternative course of events, Washington can decide on a limited strike against the IRI but such option is less probable.