Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone on Thursday morning in the most direct escalation of the ongoing crisis between Washington and the Islamic republic. The prospect of U.S. military conflict with the second-largest country in the Middle East has alarmed leaders and defense officials worldwide — but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton may be getting just what they want.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran have steadily deteriorated since President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 multilateral Iranian nuclear deal that agreed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic relief. The Trump administration instead implemented a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and aggressive military posturing, but instead of forcing Iran to capitulate to American demands, the strategy has increased the possibility of military conflict and led to Iran vowing to break its end of the nuclear pact.
The drone incident on Thursday was an extension of this pushback — one that analysts say policymakers should have seen coming.
“This was an entirely predictable consequence of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. “The maximum pressure strategy has rendered the Iranians more, not less, belligerent.”
Pompeo and Bolton have been at the forefront of this maximum pressure campaign. Although both deny the U.S. wants a military conflict with Iran, they have spent much of their careers campaigning for regime change in Tehran. Some analysts view the pressure campaign as an attempt to goad Iran into an attack like Thursday’s drone incident that would allow the U.S. pretext to strike Iran militarily ― an intervention that figures such as Bolton have openly advocated for as a means of halting its nuclear ambitions.
“This is an outcome that John Bolton desired so that it would provide enough justification for a military action against Iran that would bloody its nose or cut it down to size,” Vaez said.
Iran initially responded to the U.S. pulling out of the nuclear deal with a degree of restraint, hoping that European nations who stuck to the deal would provide some economic relief. But as financial incentives to stay in the deal failed to materialize and U.S. pressure mounted, Iran has begun to lash out. This week the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the country would soon break its part of the 2015 nuclear deal that regulates how much uranium it can produce. A series of attacks on foreign oil tankers in the Gulf, which Iran denies responsibility for, has increased international concerns and affected global oil prices.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has continued to heap on pressure without any real offer of a diplomatic solution. In recent weeks, U.S. officials announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, repeatedly threatened retaliation if American interests are threatened and ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East on top of the 1,500 it announced last month. Conservative lawmakers vowed a military response to threats from Iran and its loose network of proxy groups.
If the U.S. does decide to strike Iran, even in a limited capacity, there’s a risk the situation could spiral dangerously out of control into a larger conflict. Despite Bolton and Pompeo’s hawkishness, however, Trump, for now, appears hesitant to become embroiled in a conflict with Iran ― even suggesting Thursday that Iran’s leaders did not intend to shoot down the U.S. drone.
But the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is likely to produce more opportunities for conflict in the future. Increased military tensions or potentially a limited conflict is also in the interest of Iranian hardliners, Vaez said, as they have long opposed negotiations with the U.S. and believe a clash would allow them to sideline their more moderate opponents in Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections in early 2020.
“This is a crisis entirely manufactured by the Trump administration, because a few months ago Iran was in full compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal,” Vaez said. “Now it’s on the verge of violating that agreement.”