US-Iran tensions: Back from the brink

President Donald Trump’s speech to the nation on January 8 morning American time turned out to be a step towards “de-escalation” as anticipated by several observers including this writer. The Iranians had fired 22 missiles on 8th morning local time on US targets in bold defiance of Trump’s “Red Line” warning against hitting American facilities.  Even in the midst of serious tension two good signs of stepping back from a full blown war were evident:  First, that the US President decided against making an “Oval Office” speech to the nation to order immediate retaliation just after the Iranian bombing; second, his statement that he would speak only on Wednesday morning US time. These were interpreted as “Signs of respite with Iran” and a “best case scenario for de-escalation”.

A New York Times report on January 7 had said that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had made a rare appearance at the Iranian National Security Council to “lay down the parameters for retaliation”. He is reported to have said that it should be “direct and proportional”, openly carried out by the Iranian forces themselves and not by its proxies like the Hezbollah or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. As a result, Iran fired 22 ballistic missiles to US bases in Iraq on Wednesday Jan 8th at 0130 am local time. Reports said that the missiles hit Ain al-Asad in Anbar Province hosting US troops and a facility in Erbil in Kurdish region.

While American sources did not mention any casualties, Iranian state TV said that nearly 80 “American terrorists” were killed in these attacks. It claimed that the US could not intercept any of these missiles. US helicopters and military equipment were damaged. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a broadcast that “a slap in the face” was delivered. Iran’s State television also said that 100 other targets which were “in sight” would be hit if US escalated the retaliation.

US-Iran tensions had increased after President Donald Trump took over as President in 2017. In May 2018 he unilaterally pulled out of the “Iran Nuclear deal” which was concluded in July 2015 after a great deal of negotiation since 2013. This was not merely an Iran-US deal but between Iran and P5+1(5 permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany together with European Union (EU).

Under this agreement which was also called the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), Iran would permit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear facilities in return for the relaxation of the US, EU and Security Council sanctions. The catalyst was US President Barack Obama who permitted secret bilateral talks with Ir an resulting in the drawing up of a Joint Action Plan in November 2013. Through this agreement the entire Middle East security scenario had cooled.

On May 8, 2018 President Trump announced US withdrawal from JCPOA. As a result US sanctions against Iran were re-imposed in November 2018. Ironically the IAEA certified in May 2019 that Iran was abiding by the main provisions of the JCPOA, although some doubts remained on centrifuges. Since then bilateral tensions between Iran and US nose-dived.

US-Iran tensions had increased after President Donald Trump took over as President in 2017. In May 2018 he unilaterally pulled out of the “Iran Nuclear deal” which was concluded in July 2015 after a great deal of negotiation since 2013. This was not merely an Iran-US deal but between Iran and P5+1(5 permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany together with European Union (EU).

In May 2019 Iran was blamed by US for damaging 4 oil tankers off the UAE coast, which Iran denied. In June 2019 Iran shot down a US military surveillance drone which Iran said was in their airspace. US countered it saying that it was in international waters. Media reports said that Trump was about to order missile strikes on 3 sites in Iran but cancelled the plan when told that it would kill 150 Iranians which he felt was “not proportionate” to shooting down an unmanned drone.

On September 15, 2019 Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in Abqaiq and Khurais were hit by drones causing great damage. Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there was no evidence that the attack came from Yemen and accused Iran of launching an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. Abqaiq is reportedly the world’s most important processing centre and the attacks reduced global oil production by 5%. Lack of military response from the US was interpreted as American weakness or lack of interest in fighting Saudi Arabia’s war.

However, the US was waiting for an opportunity to strike Iran in a manner “proportionate” to their aggression. The opportunity came on 27 December 2019 when Iran backed Iraqi Katab’ib Hezbollah fired 30 rockets on an Iraqi airbase in Kirkuk province killing an American civil contractor and injuring 4 US service members along with 2 Iraqi security personnel. The US retaliated on 29 December by striking Katab’ib Hezbollah’s 5 bases killing 25 militia members.

On 31 December 2019 Katab’ib Hezbollah and supporters attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad which caused damage to the Embassy’s periphery. They also burnt some trailers used by security checkpoints outside the embassy. The mob spray painted “Soleimani is our leader” along with anti-American slogans.

This incident reminded US policy makers of the 21 November1979 burning of the US Embassy in Islamabad and the 11 September 2012 attack on the US Diplomatic mission in Benghazi (Libya). They felt that a targeted attack on US diplomatic staff was being planned by Iranian Special Forces under Gen. Qassem Soleimani. It was said that the order of a drone attack on him was signed by President Trump on 29 December at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Another report said that Soleimani was “taunting” America by “going to Baghdad with impunity”.

A strong reason for de-escalation might be the perceptible differences among top US officials who had openly shared “varying pictures why that decision was made”, as reported by the US media, and what they plan to do next.  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s belligerent defence on January 7 of the targeted killing of General Qassem Soleimani failed to justify the American claim that they had evidence of “any imminent threat” to the US from him. Similarly President Trump’s threat tweet that the US would target 52 Iranian sites(representing 52 American hostages held at the time of President Carter and released much later)if Iran targeted American interests was contradicted by the Pentagon on January 6.

[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat]