18 July 2019

The US-Iran war: One “push of a button” away. Is there any going back?

Claudiu Nebunu

Unresolved attacks on oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait area, drone and rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, the shooting down of an American military drone by Iranian forces – these are only some of the incidents which raised the temperature in the Middle East for the past few weeks. Gulf waters are ready to boil! And it was very close to happen on Friday (June 21), how else, than in the morning… A US-Iran open conflict to shake world’s foundations!

Image source: Mediafax

It was very close!

Friday, June 21, 2019… The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, could have been the beginning of an even longer night of a Gulf war… US President Donald Trump ordered military strikes on Iranian targets, including radar and missile installations, for the early hours of Friday (02.00 GMT).

Military aircrafts were in the air, battleships were in positions, fingers were tense hovering above launch buttons… but the final order was never given!

The reason for suspending the strikes is not (yet) known – if this was due to President Trump’s independent change of opinion or following the intervention of counsellors / high-ranked political and military officials in Washington, based on an assessment of disastrous consequences or logistical reasons – and it is also not known if the attacks were outright cancelled or just postponed.

The US president approved the military strikes several hours after the Revolutionary Guards (elite Iranian units) announced the shooting down (during the morning of Thursday, June 20) of a US military drone, about which Tehran claims flew above its national territory.

US officials replied, several hours after the incident, that the drone, which was probably shot down by a surface-to-air missile, was flying in international airspace when it was hit. Trump accused Iran of making a “very big mistake”, admitting however several hours later that it was not intentioned (!?).

Within national airspace or… abroad?

During the entirety of Thursday, Washington and Tehran engaged in a true war of statements regarding the exact position of the drone at the moment it was shot down.

Tehran claimed that the aircraft entered its national airspace, while the Pentagon assured that it did not violate Iranian space “at any moment in time”, publishing various maps of drone’s coordinates and trajectory at the moment it was shot down.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that Tehran has “uncontestable” evidence that the aircraft violated its national airspace. “Even some parts from the aircraft’s remains were recovered from national territorial waters” specified a message sent on Thursday night by the Iranian foreign affairs minister to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in Iran.

The message followed a notification sent by Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravaji, to UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, in which he deems the drone’s evolution as a “flagrant violation of international law”. “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not seek war, but reserves its inherent right […] to take all the adequate measures necessary against any hostile act of violating its territory, and is firmly determined to defend its terrestrial, maritime and aerial territory,” reads the ambassador’s message.

“Our country will not accept this, I can tell you that,” warned Trump, after which he tried to cool down the situation, by launching the idea of an error made by the Iranian side. “I can’t believe it was done deliberately”, the American president said from the Oval Office.

The US Federal Aviation Administration forbid the entrance of US aircraft in Iranian-controlled airspace (FIR Tehran) above the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, due to intense military activity and rising political tensions in the region, this representing a threat to US civil aviation operations, accompanied by risk of misidentification.

How close was the war?

According to The New York Times, which quotes high-ranked US military personnel, Donald Trump initially approved, and then cancelled, strikes on “several Iranian military targets, such as radars and missile batteries”, as retaliation for the drone being shot down.

According to the sources, the operation was already unfolding, “in its incipient phases”, at the moment Trump changed his mind. Until 19.00, local time, US military officials and diplomats were expecting for the attacks to be launched against the agreed targets, including weapons deposits. The attacks would take place on Friday morning, just before sunrise, to lower both military and civilian losses.

Several American news outlets independently reported the same information. The Associated Press (AP) referred to a statement of a US official who said that the attacks were recommended by the Pentagon, and are among the options presented to high administration officials.

The operation was cancelled after Trump spent his entire Thursday discussing Iran with his security counsellors, but also with Congress leaders. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security counsellor John Bolton requested a stronger approach, but the leaders of Congress appealed for caution.

The US president confirmed on Twitter, on Friday, that he gave the order to attack Iran, but changed his mind 10 minutes before the operation was launched.

The fact that the American drone was shot down is certain, as are the attacks on the oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Unlike those attacks, the “culprit” is also known – Iran, which argues its action by claiming that the aircraft violated its airspace. However, some reflection on the circumstances are warranted… as are some questions (without answers) …

Intentionally or not?

Initially, President Donald Trump accused Iran that it made a “very big mistake” but he nuanced his position several hours later by stating that shooting down the drone was not an “intentional act”. What determined the change in the US president’s stance? New information (unlikely that a president would make such an accusation without solid information) or reconsidering an impulsive decision (understanding the fact that escalating tensions between the two countries will lead to an open conflict in the Gulf, with disastrous consequences for the region and even the entire world)? Was it a personal change in opinion or did it follow convincing efforts made by major US political representatives (to be noted that Trump recently launched his electoral campaign)?

“It is hard to believe that the attack was intentional”, said Trump, adding the following: “I think that Iran probably made a mistake – I imagine that it was a general or someone who acted erroneously to shoot down that drone”.

In such a tense situation it is almost certain that Iranian forces are placed on maximum alert. Taking into account the stakes of the game, it is also very probably that the decision to open fire on a target (especially American) was taken at the highest level. An emotional reaction from some radical character in the chain of command is not excluded but, again very probably, a verification procedure is in place to avoid errors.

In conclusion, an error in transmitting the decision cannot be seriously taken into consideration. What about a localization error?

Exact coordinates?

The main theme of Thursday’s statements from both sides was the drone’s position at the moment of the attack: was it inside Iranian airspace or not? In the morning, the two sides presented different stories: Washington claimed that the drone was shot down in international airspace, by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, while Tehran claimed that the drone was inside its national airspace, above the southern shore of the Hormozgan province.

In a Twitter post, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif published the drone’s coordinates when it was hit: 25°59’43 north latitude and 57°02’25 east longitude, at 04.05 local time (23.35 GMT), adding that fragments from the drone were found in Iranian territorial waters. The Pentagon reacted, publishing a map with the drone’s trajectory and an image with the aircraft in flames, falling, claiming that its actual position was 25°57’42 north latitude and 56°58’22 east longitude, at 04.09 local time (23.39 GMT).

A question arises immediately… If the values of these coordinates are different (normally, in order to ensure positioning inside or outside national airspace), why does the time of the attack differ? The difference is four minutes… During this time interval, the drone could have travelled the distance between the two positions in a downwards trajectory.

The nearest assumption, without contradicting values announced by the two sides, would be that the aircraft was hit in the first position announced by the Iranians, was seriously damaged, and then crashed into the position announced by the US.

In conclusion, the drone would have entered Iranian air space…

Provoked attack or not?

The Revolutionary Guard claims that it hit the aircraft once it flew into national air space, using the anti-air system known as “Raad” – a missile system installed on the back of a truck which can hit targets up to 30km high, according to Iranian news agency Farsi.

The drone was identified as RQ-4 Global Hawk model, which can fly at maximum altitude of almost 20 km, with 24-hour autonomy, which costs approximately USD150 million. Zarid, in his Twitter post, mentioned that the drone took off from the United Arab Emirates in “stealth/invisible” mode, in order to not be detected.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) stated that the Revolutionary Guard’ report was false, claiming that the incident was an “unprovoked attack on a US aerial surveillance device in the international air space”. “The drone was 34 km away from the nearest Iranian territory at the moment it was hit,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the commander of CENTCOM’s airforce.

“Borders are our red line” highlighted the Revolutionary Guard’s commander, Gen. Hossein Salami. “Any enemy who violates our borders will be annihilated,” he added.

In conclusion, if the evolution of the US drone did indeed violate Iranian national air space, the attack was provoked. Even if the drone’s trajectory was in proximity, its actions could not have been considered “friendly” in current circumstances. Even if we accept the notion of a piloting error on part of the US aircraft, the nature of its specific missions rather leads to the idea of a provocation from Washington (more or less intentional).

In the other sense, it seems illogical that Iran (including the hardliners in Tehran) would provoke the US directly to an eventual war, one it can only lose, because of clear US military superiority…

The final diplomatic attempts?

The United States requested on Friday to summon a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council for Monday (June 24) on the subject of recent evolutions related to Iran and the Persian Gulf.

At the same time, representatives of the countries participating in the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA, 2015), with the exception of the US, which withdrew, will meet in Wien, on Friday (June 28), according to the Iranian foreign minister, quoted by DPA.

This meeting could be the last diplomatic attempt to salvage the agreement before the ultimatum made by Iran expires at the beginning of July. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani restated on Wednesday (June 19) that the remaining signatory states have until July 7 to relax sanctions against his country.

Washington unilaterally withdrew from the agreement last year, resuming sanctions against the Tehran regime in the oil industry and financial areas, also warning that it will sanction all countries and companies which buy Iranian oil. Iranian officials announced that they are negotiating alternative options for oil trade with Russia and China, in case of a failure of European Union efforts to continue the agreement. In this case, Iran would not continue to respect the limits for enriching uranium settled in 2015.

A good reason for political controversy for Trump who, in the beginning of his electoral campaign, responded to questions posed by journalists regarding the launch of an attack against Iran: “Categorically, I would intervene in the case of nuclear weapons, but I will leave a question mark for the other option [ed. -maintaining order in the Gulf]”.

Is there any way back?

Donald Trump was elected also for his promise to withdraw the US from the Middle East. An intervention against Iran, which also presumes ground operations, would cause significant losses. And these would not help Trump’s re-election in 2020.

But various speculations are circulating regarding who is the actual deciding force in US foreign policy – President Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and security advisor John Bolton, both well-known for their previous anti-Iran stances.

If the Trump Administration’s strategy to apply maximum pressure on the Tehran regime by withdrawing from the Nuclear Agreement and re-applying sanctions was implemented, now it remains to be seen what is intended with it.

Beyond everything, this incident marks the first direct and open Iranian attack on a US military capability and happens at a moment of maximum tensions in relations between the two countries.

Furthermore, regardless of who was behind the incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, there are also forces pushing for war, against any political or humane reason, and, even more, which consider an armed conflict even the solution to current tensions.

Trump confirmed press reports according to which he had decided to approve air strikes against Iranian targets, but cancelled them before the Pentagon could execute. The US president wrote on Twitter that he ultimately decided to cancel the entire operation out of concern for causing collateral victims.

Without any doubt, on Friday morning, the world was the closest to a potential launch of direct military confrontations. But these were just postponed! It is now less probable that the accumulated tension will be released through diplomatic means.

Any incident, any considered misstep on part of Iran, can now only find a response in a military intervention, be it punctual…

Until next Friday!

Translated by Ionut Preda