The Middle East is again staring at conflict and this time it is the United States and Iran at loggerheads. If the triggers are pulled it is just not the Middle East that will suffer but the entire globe.
When P5+1 leaders in July, 2015 announced the conclusion and signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, the world believed that lasting peace was finally descending upon the Middle East, where every other day is a new chapter in the regions bloodied conflict history. At the time of the signing, the JCPOA was termed as an vision document that had supported the cause of non-non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and has in turn thus shield the world from a future nuclear conflict.
Only years before, the Iranian regime, which was fast throttling towards realising its wish for a nuclear device, had threatened war against the United States and her ally – Israel.
While the JCPOA went into effect and the world awaited for the “implementation day”, P 5+1 leaders were worried of the deal’s survival in the long run. While nuclear inspectors and envoys from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met top officials in Tehran in the run up to the implementation day, almost 10,000 kilometres away – one man threatened to bring JCPOA to its knees. These concerns had a strong reason.
Having already announced his bid for being the 45th President of the United States of America, Republican candidate Donald J Trump, an vocal critic of the JCPOA agreement reached under the Obama administration, openly endorsed to the idea of reversing the deal, if he were to be elected the President. Throughout his campaign for the White House, Trump repeatedly called out the Obama administration for concluding the JCPOA, which he teed as a decaying and rotten agreement that only protected Iran’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
But Trump was then not the frontrunner for the Presidency. Democratic candidates had a healthy lead over the politically inexperienced Trump. On January 16, 2016 the “implementation day’ came and P 5+1 nations and Iran went ahead with the deal, even as Khomeini remained jittery to Trump’s rise in US political circles.
By November, 2016 the whole dynamic for world politics changed when Donald J Trump, the Republican candidate, won the race for the 45th Presidency.
When Trump was sworn into the office, the writing on the wall was crystal clear. “The JCPOA or more famously known as Iran nuclear deal would soon or later be gone.” The only guess was how and when?
As expected amongst the first order of business set out by President Trump after being seated at the Oval Office was to launch a broad based review of the JCPOA. And in a matter of months, President Trump made it clear that he was either pulling out the Iran Nuclear deal or was reworking the entire frame work.
As the administration went into gear over the months, it remerged that President Trump was no longer interested in renegotiating the agreement but he just wanted to scuttle the entire agreement.
The trigger for his move to pull the US out of JCPOA came from an expected quarter – Israel – the closest ally of the US and a staunch enemy of Iran.. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to stage in front of the world media at Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018, he dropped a bombshell.
Presenting to the world alleged information about Israel’s nuclear deal, which he claimed had been obtained by Israeli Intelligence agency – Mossad – in a covert operation, PM Netanyahu claimed that Iran was lying to the world about its nuclear program. He went on to claim that Iran not only had a full fledged nuclear program drawn to acquire ‘nuclear bombs’ but claimed that the program was pretty much alive and kicking. These explosive claims meant that Iran was in breach of the agreement clauses worked under JCPOA.
In less than a week of these claims, on May 2, 2018 US President Trump in a controversial and contested move announced that he had decided to pull the US out of the JCPOA agreement. He also announced that a presidential memorandum would be issued that would effectively reinstate the US nuclear sanctions on Iran.
These sanctions, he said, would institute the highest level of economic sanctions and eventually make way for secondary economic sanctions against nations and individuals who traded with Iran. This move by the Trump administration sent a clear message across to Tehran. The US no longer would support the reconstruction of the Iranian economy that was already in shambles owing to the sanctions that were imposed by the prior administration.
This changed the whole dynamics of the percieved peace and cooperation between Iran and the West that was diligently cried under JCPOA.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani within moments f Trump’s announcement declared that this development would put undue pressure on Tehran and that his Government would be forced to act if America did not mend its ways and struck to its share of brain reached under JCPOA.
For year almost, tensions soured between Washington and Tehran. Counter allegations and threats flew as the economic sanctions chocked Iran’s economy.
But when on November 4, 2018, the US imposed the secondary sanctions against nations trading with Iran, Tehran was spooked. These sanctions were enforced to target Iran’s biggest commodity – Oil.
Initially though, the US’ State Department awarded waivers to Iran’s biggest oil importers – India, China and Japan.
Tehran, all the while, desperately tied to gain back the relief it had been awarded under JCPOA. Knocking on the doors of the UN and the rest of the signatory member for the JCPOA agreement, Iran made a case for its eligibility to not be on the US’ receiving end.
All the while, Trump stepped up his campaign against Tehran and blocked Iran’s bid to procure civilian airliners from both US and European manufacturers. Just about every other business deal Iran had struck with the West was fast vanishing.
The fragile Iranian economy was grinding to a screeching halt. Missed purchase of civilian aircraft meant that Iranian airliners had to continue operations with an ageing fleet, which already had an average fleet age of at least 30 years.
The tipping point to Iran’s tactic patience came about in April, 2019 as the US’ State Department lifted all of the waivers it had awarded to nations that traded with Iran. This singular move meant that Iran’s economy had screeched to a halt. Iranian currency would soon be in shambles and the inflations would shoot past the 40% mark.
President Trump’s much talked about ‘maximum pressure campaign’ was forcing Iran’s hand. The Iranian regime an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) both threatened to react to US’ pressure campaign based on a two pronged approach.
While tip functionaries of the regime (not to be confused with the democratic Government functionaries) repeatedly called for ‘Death to America’, the IRGC’s chief – General Hossein Salami – threatened to block the entire length of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and to eventually choke the world off its oil supply.
When US’ National Security Advisor (NSA) John Bolton, spoke on May 5, 2019, even as tensions were simmering in the Middle East, addressing an urgently convened press conference, the world’s strategic circle knew that a major policy announcement was over due. It was widely believed that NSA Bolton had taken the most hawkish policy against Iran. He was a known advocate of utilising the military option against Tehran.
What NSA Bolton announced though surprised many who had closely followed the US-Iran tensions as it unfolded over the months. The Trump administration had decided to dispatch a carrier battle group and additional troops into the Middle East with immediate effect.
Briefing the press about this escalatory move, NSA Bolton said “In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
To support their escalatory efforts, the Trump administration claimed that it had obtained troubling intelligence inputs from its intelligence agencies, who claimed that Iran was in preparation to launch strike against the US and her interests in the region.
It was eventually revealed that US intelligence agencies were in possession of high resolution pictures, which seemed to show Iranian nationals landing anti-shipping missile (AShM) onto small boats, commonly known as Dhows, in preparation to target ship transiting through the Persian Gulf.
While the US debated Trump’s policy, USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, leading charge of US’ sudden increased military footprint in the Middle East, entered the Persian Gulf through the Mediterranean.
Led by a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and supported by at least eight other front-line battle vessels and at least single nuclear-propelled attack submarine, the CBG would provide US policy makers with enough firepower to strike and neutralise key targets around Tehran, if they were intended to be used in the future by the US.
The carrier strike group would be further augmented by an unspecified number of B-52 ‘Stratofortress’ nuclear bombers that were deployed to the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
This level of increased tensions meant that Iran and America were at he brink of war. Trump rhetorically on Twitter, his favourite diplomacy platform, said “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the US again.”
His NSA, John Bolton talking about the massing of troops, said “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
This unseen military buildup in the Middle East brought back memories of the Farsi Island fiasco which had in 2016 seen Iran confiscating two US Navy riverine commando boats consisting of ten US sailors. Tensions between Washington and Tehran had soured in a matter of hours. Back then, the Obama administration had, however, relied on diplomatic channels to defuse the tensions peacefully and in the end the boats and the ten sailors were repatriated with the US.
This time around for President Trump though this was a non-existent option. His repeated profound attacks on the Iranian regime and Government had caveatted both the officially and track two diplomatic channels that existed between the US and Iran. A military confrontation with Iran seemed imminent.
While the whole world watched the military buildup with concern, an eerie incident in the Gulf of Oman on May 12, 2019 set the alarms bells ringing across the world.
In a predawn attack at the Fujariah port in UE, four tankers carrying crude oil and byproducts were struck by unknown explosive objects effectively leaving them crippled in the water. Termed a sabotage attack by investigators, the attacks are believed to have been carried out using sea mines, that are capable of blowing gapping holes in ship hulls.
Reuters reported that the attacks were carried out by a surface vessel operating close by that despatched underwater drones carrying 30-50 kilograms of high-grade explosives. Shipping companies which owned the crippled vessels – Amjad, Almarzoqah, A. Michel and Andrea Victory – said that all of the vessels were struck either above of just blow the waterline.
These attacks just off the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz significantly ratified the already simmering tensions. US’ intelligence which had warned of attacks of the similar kind on shipping traffic along the Straits had indeed come true.
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US all jumped in to blame Iran and IRGC for the attacks. President Trump speaking about the attacks, said “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that, they are not going to be happy.” While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his European and Russian counterparts after the attacks, NSA Bolton directly blamed Iran for the attacks.
Though Iran has denied any role in these attacks, the US and her allies steadfastly claim that it was an unprovoked act of aggression planned by IRGC and carried out by its subsidiaries. NSA Bolton briefing the press about the attacks, said “It’s clear that Iran is behind the Fujairah attack. Who else would you think would be doing it? Someone from Nepal? There is no doubt in anybody’s minds in Washington, we know who did this and it’s important Iran knows we know.”
These hostile unprovoked aggression and mystery attacks in Fujairah also put the trie shipping traffic passing through the Persian Gulf on heightened alert. An attack around the Strait of Hormuz threatened to choke the world off its oil supplies.
Almost 1/3rd of the world’s crude oil transported through tankers either originates around the Persian Gulf or transits through it during its transit from the West to East. A perceived disruption in supply of crude oil, following the attacks, alone had pushed the oil prices by almost 2% and had a telling effect on the global market.
These attacks also brought back memories of the ‘tanker war’ that raged between Iran and Iraq in 1984. Under Operation Earnest Will, the US Navy had then protected the shipping traffic by providing naval escort utilising as many as 30 naval ships.
While the markets reeled under the aftereffects of the attacks, on May 14, 2019 a series of drone attacks on Saudi oil installations threatened to ignite a conflict ally by accident.
With tensions simmering at a record high, the European Union (EU) in lieu with Gulf states such as Oman and Qatar pushed for a dialogue between Washington and Tehran.
Even as the military build-up increased in the region, Russia stepped in asking for talks to diffuse the situation and avoid any conflict. In a statement condemning the latest events in the region, the Russian foreign ministry, said “We are seriously concerned about the anti-Iran hysteria being whipped up in the United States. The latest round began after Teheran’s announcement of its intention to suspend performance of part of its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, in response to massive US sanctions. The US is aggravating the situation by sending aircraft carriers and bombers to the Persian Gulf area, which is accompanied by bellicose statements and groundless and unsubstantiated accusations that Iran is engaged in “subversive activity” in the surrounding region and creating threats to US diplomats in neighbouring Iraq. However, Washington does not recall those Iraqis who were killed as a result of its actions.”
Commenting on Trump administration’s sanctions, it said “It seems that Washington uses sanctions, military pressure and harsh, aggressive rhetoric to provoke a tougher response from Iran, and even seek a pretext for direct confrontation. This is a very dangerous policy which is intended not only to deliberately destroy the JCPOA, which Iran has strictly complied with, but which runs the risk of destabilising the entire Middle East region. We would recommend that the US consider the consequences of its aggressive behaviour and think about additional problems that such a policy could create for this long-suffering region and for international security as a whole.”
Russia’s call for talks only muddied the situation. While President Trump and his administration turned down ay possibilities of talks with Iran, they did signal that the US remained open to dialogue if Iran agreed on 12-key requirements as raised by the State Department.
A breakthrough in the conflict, however, was signalled when Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe landed in Tehran on June 12, 2019 to meet representatives of the Iranian regime and Government. It is strongly believed within the diplomatic circle that PM Abe carried an offer from Trump.
On June 13, 2109, PM Abe met with the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to put through US’ offer. Even as the talks took place in Tehran, the leaders were pulled aside mid-way to be briefed about a series of rest attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, just south of the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas.
A Norwegian owned and flagged oil tankers – Front Altair – had relayed a distress signal at around 0312 Hrs (GMT) signalling an explosion that had incapacitated the vessel. While US Navy vessels in the region were busy attending Altair’s distress call, Kokuka Courageous, a Japanese owned and flagged oil tanker, relayed a series of distress signals starting 0400 Hrs (GMT).
While rescue operations were underway, a Reaper drone deployed on station to keep watch of activities in the region was allegedly fired up on using an Iranian SA-7 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM).
USS Bainbridge and USS Mason, which were operating in the region as part of USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, were they first responders to the distress calls. Through the rescue operations, crew of these vessels noted the presence of several small Iranian naval boats in the region.
Crew of both Kokuka Courageous and Front Altair noted that their vessels were struck by a mystery flying object. Some crew members of Kokuka Courageous claimed that a torpedo had struck the ship as the damage was far below the waterline. By the afternoon, Pentagon released pictures of IRGC guards salvaging unexploded Limpet naval mines from the hull of the incapacitated vessels.
The new series of attacks prompted the US to move an additional 1,500 troops to Saudi Arabia. A new battery of Patriot SAM system alongside Amphibious Landing Ship – USS Arlington – was pushed into the Middle East with great haste.
Then acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick M Shanahan, talking about the developments, said “The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behaviour by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region.”
Briefing about the nature of deployment, the Secretary said, “The United States does not seek conflict with Iran. The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests.” “The focus for myself and [National Security Advisor John] Bolton and Secretary Pompeo is to build international consensus to this international problem.”
Mike Pompeo, US’ top most diplomat, soon after the attacks, said “In May, the Revolutionary Guards attempted to deploy dhows capable of launching missiles. It is now working to execute on that promise. Tehran was also tied, through a proxy militia in Yemen, to an attack, on May 14th, on two strategic oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia. Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran.”
Blaming Iran squarely for the attacks, he said “It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman. This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”
When asked about US’ response to the attacks, Pompeo said “ Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed and extortion. The United States will defend its forces, interests, and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability. And we call upon all nations threatened by Iran’s provocative acts to join us in that endeavour.”
Iran yet again rebuffed US’ allegations and put the blame on US and her regional allies. Iran’s Foreign minister Javad Zarif, said “Reported attacks on Japan-related tankers occurred while PM Shinzo Abe was meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei for extensive and friendly talks. Suspicious doesn’t begin to describe what likely transpired this morning. Iran’s proposed regional dialogue forum is imperative.”
Confrontations in Middle East was now on. A hair trigger. While US contemplated naval escorts, surveillance was drastically stepped up across the region.
One such platform on station on June 20, flying over the Strait of Hormuz was a US Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drone. At around 2335 Hrs (GMT), the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) was struck by a single SAM, eventually forcing the drone to disintegrate and crash into international waters just outside Iran’s territory.
Within hours Iran issued an official statement claiming the shooting down of the drone and claimed that the missile was fired as a defensive measure as the Global Hawk according to Iran was flying several kilometres inside Iranian Sovereign airspace.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif justifying his country’s action, tweeted “At 00:14 US drone took off from UAE in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace. It was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates (25°59’43″N 57°02’25″E) near Kouh-e Mobarak. We’ve retrieved sections of the US military drone in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down.”
Meanwhile the US Central Command, which is in charge of maintaining the security of US and her allies’ interest in the Middle East, in a statement said, “A U.S. Navy RQ-4 was flying over the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz on a surveillance mission in international airspace in the vicinity of recent IRGC maritime attacks when it was shot down by an IRGC surface to air missile fired from a location in the vicinity of Goruk, Iran.”
Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, briefing about the attack, said “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time during its mission. This attack is an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce. Iranian reports that this aircraft was shot down over Iran are categorically false. The aircraft was over the Strait of Hormuz and fell into international waters. At the time of the intercept, the RQ-4 was operating at high-altitude approximately 34 kilometers from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast. This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, UAE, and Muscat Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians.”
The United States held Iran solely responsible for the attack on the drone and termed it an unprovoked attack on its military asset flying in international airspace. President Trump largely played down the attack and in a statement said “Iran made a big mistake.” When pressed for retaliatory options being considered, he had said “Obviously, you know, we’re not going to be talking too much about it. You’ll find out. They made a very big mistake.”
While the international community called for maximum restraint in exercising military options that would only escalate the already tense situations, the US military steadfastly maintained that it reserved all rights to strike back at Iran for the unprovoked attack,
It was an unusually busy day at Washington as top officials took stock of the situation. It merged that US was indeed willing to carry out limited strikes targeting Iranian assets.
By the next morning, the Trump administration itself confirmed that it had indeed mounted an operation to strike Iranian assets including multiple missile batteries, that were designated as overwhelming threats to the US and her allies’ assets operating in the region. Senior functionaries of the Pentagon tactically confirmed that the US had deployed both aircraft and ships for the high-risk high-stakes strike.
While the military remained ready to send a message to Iran through tactic action, it was the White House’s reluctance that stopped a US-led strike against Iran. President Trump on June 21, claimed it was his efforts that had saved Iran from repenting over a crippling strike.
Resorting to Twitter, the President took potshots at Obama administration and JCPOA and said “President Obama made a desperate and terrible deal with Iran – Gave them 150 Billion Dollars plus I.8 Billion Dollars in CASH! Iran was in big trouble and he bailed them out. Gave them a free path to Nuclear Weapons, and SOON. Instead of saying thank you, Iran yelled Death to America. I terminated deal, which was not even ratified by Congress, and imposed strong sanctions. They are a much weakened nation today than at the beginning of my Presidency, when they were causing major problems throughout the Middle East. Now they are Bust!”
Detailing intimate details of the perceived strikes, he said “On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. 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. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
President Trump’s tactic to keep Iran off getting a nuclear device already seems to be failing. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly said that his country would withdraw from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, thus allowing Iran to restart its shady nuclear program. Iran is also pipped to enrich Uranium above the 3.67% curb that was enforced under JCPOA. This move and Iran’s plans to restart activity at Arak nuclear facility places it directly in path to acquire nuclear devices if desired.
These developments and an overt show of reluctance at the highest seat of policy making has only added confusion in the simmering tensions. President Trump relenting to strike Iran and failing to convey a dialogue, clearly exhibits the caveats in the policy making ability of administration. Lackadaisical approach of the Trump’s administration in north foreign and security policies is well documented. With having set the region on hair trigger conflict, it is crucial that President Trump toes the line and charts his future course of action not in sand but on rock.