Iranian hardliners appear to be itching for war. In the latest of a series of provocations, Iran shot down a U.S. drone over what the regime claimed was Iranian airspace at 4:05 a.m. Iranian time on Thursday. This attack on one of the U.S. military’s most technologically advanced and expensive drones followed an attempt by Iran to shoot down an American drone on June 13th and an attack by Iran-supported Houthi forces in Yemen that succeeded in taking down an American drone on June 6th. U.S. military authorities have also charged that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was behind recent attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the vital international maritime waterway, the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran has denied that it was behind the oil tanker incidents. However, even Democrat House Intelligence Committee Chairman Representative Adam Schiff, a leading Trump hater, conceded that U.S. intelligence “is pretty strong here that Iran is responsible for the attacks."
Iran showed no hesitation in taking credit for downing the U.S. drone on Thursday. IRGC chief commander Major General Hossein Salami said that “the IRGC’s Air Force bravely downed a US spy drone, which had intruded our border, violating our national security. This is how the Iranian nation deals with its enemies.” He added that crossing Iran’s border into its territory is “our red line.”
The United States military denied the Iranian regime’s justification for its attack on the drone, claiming that an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down the drone in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. "Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false," said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US military's Central Command. "This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace."
As tensions are rising over the Iranian regime’s and its proxies’ escalating military provocations, Iran is also moving toward exceeding certain limits set by the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration exited the JCPOA last year and has imposed an escalating series of economic sanctions targeted against Iran’s oil exports and other critical industries. However, the other parties to the deal, including the Western European countries of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, have stuck with the JCPOA and promised Iran’s leaders that they would continue doing business with the regime. The Europeans have been working on an end run of the U.S. sanctions, based on a new bartering mechanism. However, the European work-around has not gotten off the ground. The Iranian regime is growing impatient, as it contends with the severe economic fallout from the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued an ultimatum to Europe – either fix the problem created by the American sanctions by July 7th or Iran will increase its uranium enrichment.
Iran’s atomic energy spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi warned that the regime could quickly rebuild its Arak heavy water nuclear reactor to make plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. He also warned that the regime was prepared to increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent, which would be dangerously close to the capability to enrich up further to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
So far, the Trump administration has proceeded cautiously. Prior to Iran’s shooting down of the U.S. drone on Thursday, the administration had announced it was sending about 1,000 additional American troops to the Middle East to further bolster the security of American and allied personnel and assets. The administration had previously sent 1,500 additional troops to the troubled region in May, as well as an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers. The purpose was to deter Iranian aggression. The Iranian regime evidently has not gotten the message.
Iran is trying to keep its provocations below the threshold it calculates would trigger a full-scale U.S. military response that could bring down the regime. So far, the Iranian regime has gotten away with this strategy, despite the U.S. military build-up in Iran’s neighborhood. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has summarized Iran’s calculations as follows: “The Iranian interpretation of the U.S. moves as weakness has led Iran to escalate its provocations of the Americans, to the point of shooting down a U.S. MC-4Q Triton drone above the Persian Gulf today…In Iran's assessment, President Trump will not dare to act against it since war with Iran will ensure that he will not be reelected. Therefore, it can use force without fear, because Trump has no option but to submit to its demands.”
Following the downing of the drone on Thursday, President Trump tweeted a warning: “Iran made a very big mistake!” When asked about a possible U.S. response, President Trump said, “Obviously, you know we're not going to be talking too much about it. You're going to find out." Leaving himself some wiggle room, the president speculated that the downing of the drone could have been a mistake by “someone who was loose and stupid.” He added that it would have made a big difference if the lives of American military personnel had been involved. Meetings were held at the White House on Thursday to discuss the latest Iranian escalation, including a White House Situation Room briefing Thursday afternoon to which Congressional leaders of both parties were invited.
The president must set his own firm “red line” as to what constitutes unacceptable Iranian actions against U.S. or allied personnel and assets. Then, unlike Barack Obama, he must enforce his red line. President Trump needs to show the Iranian leaders and other adversaries that he means business with measured military responses relatively proportionate to Iranian provocations. Admittedly, figuring out the right type of response short of all-out war is easier said than done.
Retired U.S. General Jack Keane has suggested military escorts of oil tankers, as was done during the 1980’s. That is a good start, but it does not constitute a direct response to the downing of the drone. On the other hand, responding to the Iranian surface-to-air missile attack on the U.S. drone by launching large-scale missile or stealth bomber strikes against Iranian missile or naval facilities inside Iran would risk a massive counter response. We could see, for example, missile launches against multiple Israeli targets by Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah together with Iran’s dispatch of its numerous militarized speedboats equipped with missiles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers against U.S. and allied ships in and around the Persian Gulf. Iran also has sophisticated air defense systems supplied by Russia to repel U.S. strikes, although Russian President Vladimir Putin refused Iran’s recent request to purchase an even more sophisticated S-400 system.
The Trump administration could launch what Bill Gertz, senior editor of the Washington Beacon, described as “an airstrike against Iranian air defense batteries located near the Strait of Hormuz that were involved in shooting down the Global Hawk drone.” The Iranian regime may choose not to escalate hostilities further against U.S. personnel or assets over such a limited one-off reprisal by the United States. The regime's leaders may decide that it is not worth running the risk of unpredictable consequences that could lower their own chances for survival. Then again, the IRGC hardliners may use the U.S. reprisal against any targets inside Iranian territory as their excuse to sharply increase attacks in the region against U.S. and allied interests.
Short of resorting immediately to any major U.S. military strikes inside Iran, the U.S. could still do damage to Iranian military facilities in more vulnerable locations. For example, the U.S. could coordinate with Israel in launching multi-pronged strikes on Iranian-owned military facilities in Syria that Israel has not already destroyed. If Iran does not get the message and chooses to escalate by, for example, attacking U.S. personnel, launching more missile attacks against U.S. assets, or seeking to close the Strait of Hormuz to any oil shipments by mining or other aggressive means, then a much tougher response will be called for. The Trump administration, for instance, could replay what the Reagan administration did in 1988 to respond to the Iranian regime’s mining activities in the Strait of Hormuz – cripple Iran’s navy.
As usual, President Trump’s domestic enemies are blaming the president for the escalating tensions with Iran, not the rogue Iranian regime. Once again, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to hold her own briefing for the House Democratic caucus with the discredited former CIA Director John Brennan.
The Trump administration is not responsible for the theocratic Iranian regime’s hostile acts. They hark back to the early days of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981. The Obama administration, hoping to tame the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions, kicked the can down the road with its fundamentally flawed nuclear deal. The regime escalated its hostilities after the deal was concluded by launching ballistic missiles in violation of a UN Security Council resolution, continuing to sponsor acts of terrorism well outside of its borders, and humiliating captured U.S. sailors in violation of international law. The Trump administration decided that it was time to stop the charade and impose maximum economic pressure on the regime. Rather than change their ways and show concern for the plight of their own people, the regime’s leaders have dug in their heels.
If we remain resolute, the Iranian regime’s leaders will rue the day they decided to test the power of the United States and President Trump’s mettle.