US-Iran standoff: Mutual provocations, and moves to de-escalate

Scott Peterson, Ann Scott Tyson

Iranian military commanders could hardly contain their glee at shooting down a $130 million American spy drone last Thursday, escalating U.S.-Iran tensions and coming very close to triggering an American retaliatory strike.

And in the aftermath of the shoot-down of the RQ-4A Global Hawk drone – and news that President Donald Trump said he reversed his decision to attack Iran to prevent 150 civilian deaths and avoid a further surge toward war – Iranian officials portrayed the United States as in retreat.

“If they make any [wrong] move, we can hit them in the head with our missiles,” declared Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aerospace forces. “Once the presence of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf was seen as a threat to our country. But today we have turned that challenge into an opportunity; they are now like our target [dart] board.”

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Despite Iran’s moment of triumphalism, the U.S.-Iran standoff in the Persian Gulf remains at a perilously tense level. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, an Iran hawk who has often called for military strikes and regime change, warned pointedly against misreading the president’s “prudence and discretion for weakness.”

Yet leaders on both sides say they don’t want a war that could quickly spiral beyond anybody’s control. That has raised two questions: Could changing calculations in the U.S. and Iran be converted into fresh efforts to de-escalate? And could such changes yield a push for new negotiations, especially if Iran now feels it is in a position of greater strength?

For more than a year, Mr. Trump has pursued a campaign of “maximum pressure” aimed at forcing Iran to renegotiate the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from in May 2018 but which is still backed by the European Union, Russia, and China. Until now, Iran has rejected any new talks unless Washington rejoins the nuclear deal.

Flashpoints continue to appear. On Monday, Washington imposed what it called “significant” new sanctions on Iran, which included targeting Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his circle, as well as eight commanders, among others.

U.S. officials say Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – who negotiated the nuclear deal with top Obama administration officials – is also to be designated later this week. The sanctions add to the host of measures that have crippled Iran’s economy over the past year.

For its part, Iran – after taking no action in the year following Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal – is set to violate the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal for the first time this week by enriching uranium beyond agreed volumes.

Yet signs of restraint have also surfaced. Iran has said that, when it shot down the drone on June 20, it also had a nearby U.S. surveillance plane with 35 crew members within its sights, but did not fire. Mr. Trump later said he “appreciated” that decision. This weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered repeatedly to negotiate with “no preconditions.”

“We are near the peak of the crisis,” says Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.

“The feeling of threat from the U.S. is not over yet, and Iran is preparing itself for bigger threats resulting from the U.S. economic war: the collapse of the ‘state’ and the polarization of the ‘nation,’” he says, referring to divisions inside Iran. “No one wants war and increased escalation. Yet, using escalation as a means to de-escalate the war situation is something that is currently legitimized in Iran.”

The widespread interpretation inside Iran is that a bullet has been dodged, for now. And while many Iranian commanders and hard-line politicians praise military action alone, some argue that the drone episode also strengthens Iran’s bargaining position.

“Even within the White House, they have departed from the war mood and are moving further toward diplomacy,” said Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a senior reformist lawmaker, though he says renewed talks would require a “more secure environment [and] stronger guarantees this time.”

CAREFULLY CALIBRATED STRIKES

So far, the U.S.-Iran sparring has taken the form of carefully calibrated, unconventional strikes, such as Iran’s downing of the drone with a surface-to-air missile as well as reported U.S. cyberattacks targeting Iran’s missile systems.

“We can expect to see more of these types of activities in the coming weeks,” says Michael Connell, an Iran specialist at CNA, a research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia. But, he adds, “there is a great potential for miscalculation on both sides – that is the real danger.”

Indeed, the very real risk of an unintentional war may be a central factor leading both sides to seek ways to de-escalate.

Although Iranian military forces may be no match for American firepower, their asymmetric tactics could easily prolong an all-out conflict and cause significant disruption to the oil trade and the global economy. That could potentially give Tehran a window of opportunity to resolve the conflict on favorable terms, some military experts say.

Such a scenario doesn’t envision a U.S. military occupation of Iran or regime change, but rather reining in Iran’s offensive capabilities. Eventually, Iran’s “ability to operate in the Gulf would be eliminated. But it would take time, and it would be painful,” says Mr. Connell.

That now appears like a less immediate prospect in Iran, where widespread praise of the IRGC has led to a rally-around-the-flag effect, with even some reformist voices saying Iran now has the upper hand.

“Greetings to my brethren at the IRGC, who once again proved that they won’t allow any aggression on the soil and the sovereignty of this country,” said Elias Hazrati, a reformist lawmaker and newspaper editor.

Downing of the drone “has provided an appropriate opportunity for Iran to enter the diplomatic phase,” said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist former deputy interior minister who spent seven years in prison on political charges. He said Iran can now “express readiness” to “de-escalate tensions,” if the U.S. returns to the nuclear deal.

Still, there are few signs from the top that Iran is ready for talks, and perhaps less incentive now that Mr. Khamenei, the IRGC generals, and Mr. Zarif have been targeted for sanction.

“Iran is determined to show that the U.S. maximum economic pressure policy will not change its strategic decision to resist against U.S. threats,” says Mr. Barzegar, the Tehran analyst.

The “no war, no negotiation” strategy of Mr. Khamenei also aims to increase unity, he says.

“The fact is that the current trend of no negotiation with the U.S. has a lot of legitimacy, as the U.S. disappointed the Iranians’ ambitions for interaction by destroying the nuclear deal and returning to the sanctions.

“The new situation cannot be reversed unless the current stalemate is changed in favor of Iran,” says Mr. Barzegar. “President Trump’s economic war against Iran has left no other choice than resistance for all the Iranian political forces.”

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