Iran-United States: escalation risk?

Overview

On 20 June, Iran announced it had shot down an “American spy drone” that had allegedly violated Iranian airspace. According to the spokesman of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (pasdaran) the aircraft, a Global Hawk (produced by Northrop Grumman), was shot down in coastal Hormozgan Province, in the south of Iran.

After initially denying, the US confirmed the drone had been shot down, but added that the drone (a Mq-4c Triton reconnaissance drone of the US Navy) was allegedly hit by a surface-to-air missile while flying over international airspace, above the Strait of Hormuz.

Anyway, this has been the first direct Iranian attack on an American asset; the incident is indicative of a further increase in tensions between the two countries and, more generally, of a progressive political and security destabilisation in the region.

Analysis

With the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a resurgence of a markedly anti-Iranian sentiment, which resulted in the US administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal signed in 2015, and to reintroduce new sanctions against Tehran. On 8 April, Washington announced that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been included in the list of foreign terrorist organisations that threaten the safety of US citizens or the country’s national security. This has been the first time a government agency is listed as a terrorist organisation.

On 8 May, the Pentagon announced the US had deployed the USS Arlington – a ship capable of carrying amphibious vehicles – and the Patriot missile defense system in the region. Previously, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and numerous B-52 bombers had been sent to the area, showing heightened US military presence for deterrence purposes.

In this general climate of unrest, tensions between Washington and Tehran have further escalated after 12 May, when explosive charges were detonated against four oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah (Strait of Hormuz, UAE territorial waters), causing – according to Saudi authorities – significant damage to the ships. Despite not relying on solid evidence to support its assumptions, the US has blamed Iran for this attack.

Infographic on the recent events about the escaltion between Iran and U.S.

On 13 June 2019, in the Gulf of Oman (about 45 km from the Iranian coast), two other ships (the Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous oil tankers) were hit by an explosion, which caused serious material damage, but no fatalities among the crews. A video released by the Pentagon shortly following the incident depicts an Iranian vessel removing an unexploded naval mine alongside the Kokuka Courageous; this would suggest a direct involvement of Tehran, which, however, denied any responsibility.

The increase in tensions between the US and Iran has also had negative repercussions for other countries in the region. In Saudi Arabia, after a slight decline (starting in September 2018) in attacks by the Yemeni Shiite Houthi rebels, there has been a new surge of asymmetric operations against both civilian and military targets. Since 14 May 2019, the Houthi rebels have reportedly performed at least 15 attacks with armed drones and missiles on oil assets, ammunition depots and civil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia (especially in the southern areas on the border with Yemen, but also in the Riyadh Region). This resurgence seems to be linked to both the renewed regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the difficulties finding an effective solution to the Yemeni conflict. Although – unlike other Shiite groups in the region – the Yemeni group seems to be tied to Tehran more by the current political circumstances than by a real convergence of strategic interests, it nevertheless acts as the bridgehead of Iran in the Arabian Peninsula, right on border with Saudi Arabia. Taking advantage of the common Shiite background (actually, there are significant differences between Zaidiyyah  and Imamiyyah/Twelver, practised in Iran), the goal of the Khamenei regime is to pave the way for a Yemeni movement along the lines of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, thus securing a formidable tool in the proxy war against Saudi Arabia in the various countries in the region (Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan).

Infographic shared by Houthis social account following the shooting down of a US drone in Yemen.

Iraq has also experienced a rise in attacks on US and, more generally, foreign interests. Since May, Iraqi military bases hosting US military have been hit three times by rockets fired by unidentified attackers. On 19 May, a rocket struck the vicinity of the US embassy in Baghdad. A more serious incident occurred on 19 June, when a rocket hit the Burjesia residential and operational district in Basra, where several international oil companies are based, including the US company ExxonMobil; at least two Iraqi workers were injured during the attack, which has not been claimed yet.

In Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State has resulted in the creation of numerous militias, mostly Shiite ones, partly supported and trained by Al-Quds, the Pasdaran unit responsible for extraterritorial activities and led by influential General Qassem Suleimani. In November 2016, the Iraqi parliament legally recognised these militias as an integral part of the Armed Forces of Iraq, thus making their hybrid nature official; however, those militias have retained broad autonomy and still appear to be motivated, or at least strongly influenced, by a non-national agenda.

Outlook

For the time being, there is a limited risk of a direct conflict between Iran and the United States, as well as of a regional war between Tehran and Saudi Arabia. However, as such high tensions persist, an error of judgement by one of the parties involved or a deliberate operation by one of the militias variously affected by the recent crisis could be enough to trigger an escalation, which would have dangerous repercussions for the stability of the entire region.

Iran’s medium-term strategy is based on two distinct levels. Internally, the most radical component has become stronger and stronger for some months now, and has plans to discredit – in the eyes of public opinion too – the work of the so-called “moderate” wing (led by President Rouhani); the moderate component seems to be weaker right now, especially in light of the poor performance of the economy (-80% oil exports; annual 6% GDP drop; inflation above 30%).

Externally, Iran’s plan would be to emphasise its ability to destabilise regional security, both through direct operations and through local militias and actors, more or less directly controlled by Tehran. In this regard, it should be noted that the 13 June attacks on the two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz have caused a 4% increase in the price of Brent crude and an approximately 10% rise in insurance costs for ships sailing in Middle Eastern waters. Besides, although the Basra attacks on the ExxonMobil site will not result in imminent disruption to the business of the several international companies operating in the Iraqi oil sector, the scenario could radically change in the case of more serious incidents. In which case, consequences would be extremely significant for both the economy (with a predictable rise in the cost of crude oil) and, prospectively, security. This would in turn cause a general destabilisation in the country, that could potentially be exploited by the Islamic State and other non-state actors.