Key point: Tehran has used its proxies and even direct attacks to make its displeasure known in Washington. The ensuing tit for tat could take the region into a war.
By most accounts, the United States and Iran came within minutes of armed conflict with each other on June 20, 2019.
Around 4:30 AM that morning, a U.S. Navy RQ-4N Global Hawk spy drone flying a routine circuit over international airspace in the Persian Gulf was shot down by an Iranian Ra’ad surface-to-air missile system.
Later that day, U.S. forces were ostensibly “ten minutes” away from striking three Iranian bases likely with air- and sea-launched missiles when President Donald Trump changed his mind and canceled the attack. He later cited concerns that killing an estimated 150 Iranians over the loss of an unmanned drone was a disproportionate response.
Since the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from a nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018, it has waged a “maximum pressure campaign” on Tehran through economic sanctions. Iran had been complying with the JCPOA nuclear deal, which sharply restricted its nuclear technologies and opened sites to foreign inspectors in exchange for allowing Western companies access to the Iranian market. However, the deal’s critics complained the JCPOA did not regulate Iran’s rapidly improving ballistic missile capabilities nor address Iran’s involvement in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and support for Hezbollah.
For one year, Tehran continued adhering to the JCPOA. However, the destabilizing effects of the new sanctions proved intolerable.
Iran’s oil exports have diminished to one-fifth their previous level, from 2.5 million barrels per day to 500,000. The sanctions also scared away most European investment, even though European signatories to the nuclear deal still adhere to the JCPOA. This has resulted in a devastating recession, with Iran’s economy shrinking 4-6 percent and Iranian citizens being affected by 40-60 percent inflation, and unemployment projected to rise from 12 to 26 percent.
But though the sanctions imposed by Washington inflicted the intended damage, they succeeded only in angering, not cowing, Iran’s leaders.
Just as the United States’s stark political divisions arguably were decisive in Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama-era JCPOA, Iran’s competing power centers were divided over the agreement. Those supporting limited compromises with West have been made to look foolish, giving ammunition to the hardline religious factions and their Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitaries.
Thus, Tehran is now retaliating with a “maximum pressure” campaign of its own. Iran cannot use sanctions to punish America, but it can inflict economic pain by threatening the valuable shipping lanes running from Persian Gulf ports, through the straits of Hormuz, and into the Gulf of Oman.
During the Cold War, Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev famously said “[West] Berlin is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.” The Persian Gulf is Iran’s West Berlin.
One-third of all the world’s oil passes through Hormuz. Both the Gulf and the Straits are quite narrow—only twenty-one miles at the latter’s narrowest point—and shallow, with only one or two viable transit lanes through which large tankers can pass at parts. The north-eastern half of the Gulf coast is Iranian territory, meaning Iranian units can stage fast boats and long-range missile batteries for attacks at any point along that roughly 1,000-mile coastline.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy has trained to launch hit-and-run attacks on both military and commercial shipping using swarms of fast, expendable motor boats, naval mines, and long-range anti-ship missiles. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran also used oil platforms, islands and even converted tankers to stage forces for attacks.
Iran’s regular (“Artesh”) Navy includes over two dozen small mini-submarines and divers equipped with swimmer-delivery vehicles (SDVs) well suited to hiding in the noisy, shallow crags of the Gulf to launch surprise torpedo attacks or deploy mines in key shipping lanes.
Consider, then, the sequence of events since May 2019.
On May 12, four merchant ships anchored off the Gulf of Oman by the United Arab Emirates were sabotaged with limpet mines. Investigators noted the precision with which they were laid suggested elite combat divers.
Then on June 13, another two tankers—the Norwegian Front Altair and the Japanese Kokuka Courageous—experienced fiery blasts within minutes of each other at 3 AM. Iranian vessels rescued most of their crews and fired a man-portable anti-aircraft missile (that missed) at a U.S. MQ-9 drone observing the scene. The crew of an IRGCN patrol boat was also filmed removing an unexploded limpet mine from the side of the Kokuka Courageous.
Iran clearly had both the means (it’s specialized naval forces) and motive (retaliating against the maximum pressure campaign) for the attacks, the precise and nigh-simultaneous execution of which seem calculated to signal Iranian authorship, while maintaining a veneer of deniability for propaganda purposes.
On June 17, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran would recommence enriching higher-grade uranium in violation of the nuclear deal.
Three days later, the Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down the U.S. Navy drone—possibly without Rouhani’s approval. Iranian and American accounts disagree as to whether the drone had violated Iranian airspace, but bear in mind the slow, conspicuous and expensive RQ-4 is not designed to overfly hostile airspace.
These acts are Tehran’s way of signaling it can and will retaliate if the United States maintains its economic vice. Iran couldn’t “win” a war versus the United States—Iran’s annual defense budget costs roughly the same as a single U.S. aircraft carrier—but it could cause losses in amounting to tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in disrupted trade, and a terrible toll in human lives, not just drones and damaged tanker hulls.
Some anti-Iranian ideologues like National Security Advisor John Bolton, and like-minded national leaders in Israel and Saudi Arabia, have believed the high costs of a war are worth paying to suppress Iran’s nuclear research program. (Conveniently for America’s allies, that cost would be born foremost by the United States.) Those who see war with Iran as desirable and “winnable” may hope Iran’s escalation will “gift” America with a causus belli.
But what would a U.S. “victory” in such a war even look like? The Pentagon certainly has no appetite for an invasion and occupation of Iran, which has twice the population of Iraq. A prolonged air war—the more likely outcome—could kill thousands, and deplete stocks of expensive standoff-range missiles, without necessarily succeeding at destroying Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile technologies in their hardened underground shelters.
Meanwhile, Iran would retaliate with asymmetric warfare across the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and potentially beyond. Nor could the United States necessarily control the duration of the war. Remember, Iran pressed on with the Iran-Iraq war for six more bloody years after it had mostly expelled invading Iraqi troops.
Washington instinctively wishes to punish Iran so as not to reward its aggressive tactics. For example, after canceling the air strikes, the Trump ordered a cyber attack on Iran’s missile systems, and on June 24 placed new sanctions on Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. Rouhani responded by describing Trump as “mentally retarded” and announced plans to abrogate additional provisions of the JCPOA, while his foreign minister stated this marked “the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy.”
Trying to one-up the Iranians in tit-for-tat aggravations—one cyber attack, downed drone, imposed sanction and broken treaty obligation at time—is a losing game. Tehran is simply unlikely to respond constructively to threats of “obliteration.”
If America wants Iran to change its behavior, it will have to re-establish ruptured lines of communication and re-create genuine incentives for diplomacy, rather than leading with threats of war and crushing sanctions. After all, the danger of devastating and messy regional war already underpins Iran’s own deterrence-based security strategy in the Persian Gulf—and games of chicken where neither side de-escalates end badly for everyone involved.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.