U.S. President Donald Trump took the first step towards armed conflict with Iran on Thursday evening by approving aerial strikes shortly before cancelling them. The strikes were designed as a response to Iran downing an unmanned U.S. drone earlier in the day. While no American lives were harmed during the drone takedown operation, Trump tweeted, “Iran made a very big mistake!”
All eyes were on Washington Thursday evening as people wondered if the day was finally here: the day the U.S. begins military attacks against Tehran. Until yesterday, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran had been a war of words with leaders on each side starkly contrasting one another. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been more reserved in his public statements and reiterated that his nation has no desire for war, Trump on the other hand tweets nearly every day on the issue. His lack of experience holding public office and impulsive persona can give the impression that he is ready to fight, or rather, send U.S. soldiers to fight.
That fight didn’t break out yesterday and might not for some time if Iran continues to respond to rash threats and tone-deaf twitter rants with calm and collected, reasonable statements. Iran’s downing of the U.S. drone Thursday was significant for several reasons. First, it broke from Tehran’s practice of maintaining a passive attitude. Previously it had been reluctant to attack U.S. military assets despite them being scattered all around the region.
Secondly, Iran claimed responsibility for the strike. Following a series of tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, Tehran vehemently denied having a role in the operations. The fact that Iran is willing to own up to the missile strike on the reconnaissance UAV is telling. It means that Tehran is unafraid to push back when it feels threatened and it has no qualms about admitting its involvement when necessary.
The UAV shot down was an RQ-4A Global Hawk manufactured by Northrop Grumman. Iran managed to down it using a new variant of its Raad surface-to-air missile system (SAM). The revelation that its domestically-produced SAM is capable of taking down a U.S. drone is likely to have military analysts working overtime as they recalculate Iran’s military potential. While the nation is well-known to be fond if its missile collection, launching them and successfully striking a target is another matter entirely.
Tehran claimed the U.S. drone had violated Iranian airspace. Furthermore, the head of the Revolutionary Guards aerospace division stated that there was also a U.S. plane that also crossed into Iranian airspace while flying near the drone. The Revolutionary Guard could have attacked the plane too, but chose not to, he said.
Meanwhile the U.S. has asserted that the drone was in well-established international waters near the Strait of Hormuz when it was attacked. U.S. Central Command released a map Thursday evening showing the drone’s flight path, but skeptics have reason to doubt its accuracy. Not only did it take several hours after Iran released its own map of the incident, but Central Command also made several errors while labeling it.
There will likely never be conclusive evidence proving either side correct, but for some Trump administration officials, that may not matter. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Central Intelligence Director Gina Haspel argued in favor of military retaliation, according to anonymous administration officials. During the deliberations in the White House Situation Room, Pentagon officials cautioned Trump not to make a rash decision because it could push tensions with Iran past the point of return. Furthermore, escalating the conflict with a military response would likely imperil the lives of American soldiers and diplomats working in the region.
In the end, Pompeo was swayed to convince Trump that the sanctions he imposed on Iran are having a long-term effect, therefore a retaliatory strike wasn’t necessary. The president’s tweets on the matter seem to have confirmed this line of thinking.
“Sanctions are biting & more added last night,” Trump tweeted.
He failed to detail the new sanctions, but did elaborate that he felt the planned military operation was “no proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” In his words, he asked how many Iranians would be killed and was given an answer of 150.
The best scenario for both sides would be to return to the negotiating table with the intention of forging a new nuclear agreement, but that does not appear to be happening anytime soon. Intermediaries such as Japan and Qatar have also yielded no solid results in deescalating the crisis.