A month ago, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down an unmanned American drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Later that week, President Trump called off a retaliatory military attack on Iran at the last minute. He explained the next day that he did not believe the loss of Iranian lives to be proportionate to the loss of a machine. On Thursday, the United States appeared to level the score. US Marines jammed an unmanned Iranian drone in the Strait, downing the aircraft and destroying it. The incident reignited tensions between the two countries, which seem to be stumbling toward war.
Earlier in the day, Iran announced that the Revolutionary Guard had seized another foreign ship, and its crew Sunday, accusing them of smuggling. According to state media, the small ship had loaded some 264,000 gallons of Iranian oil, and had intended to hand it off to other foreign vessels further out, before it was intercepted by IRGC naval forces. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted it was not a tanker, capable of carrying a million barrels of crude, but a smaller ship used for smuggling a million liters. Iran also insists it is not the same vessel as the Panamanian-flagged tanker based in the United Arab Emirates, which disappeared off Iranian territorial waters days ago. Video released Wednesday by Press TV bore an uncanny resemblance between the vessel and the missing MT Riah.
In the East Room of the White House, President Trump said the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, “took defensive action” against the Iranian drone after it “closed into a very, very near distance, approximately 1,000 yards.” US Central Command also confirmed the incident, stating the drone had ignored repeated warnings. Trump advised other countries to “protect their ships as they go through the Strait and to work with us in the future.” Zarif, however, denied knowledge of the incident. “We have no information about losing a drone today,” he told reporters at the United Nations.
The Treasury Department also upped the ante Thursday, imposing new sanctions against “a network of front companies and agents,” based in Iran, China, and Belgium it says were “involved in the procurement of sensitive materials for sanctioned elements of Iran’s nuclear program.” In the meantime, Zarif offered a deal in New York to formally and permanently accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear program in exchange for the permanent lifting of sanctions. “It’s not about photo ops,” Zarif told reporters, “we are interested in substance. There are other substantial moves that can be made.” Particularly after today’s events, Zarif is unlikely to find a receptive ear in Washington.
The markets, for whatever, reason, seemed to see this coming. They did not like what they saw, however, bumping crude prices up a dollar a barrel. From Trump’s perspective, the sanctions-based “Maximum Pressure” campaign appears to be working, causing demonstrable harm to the Iranian economy. Others, like Benjamin Friedman at Defense Priorities, don’t see it that way. “It has encouraged Iran to restart its nuclear weapons program and increase its hardline policies.” Europe seems intent on saving the nuclear agreement, but without the US around to enforce it, Iran sees no need to abide by it. To the American public— and Trump’s “America First” base— war with Iran remains a tough sell. It may be, at least in the short term, that smaller-scale actions, such as these, are how Trump prefers to do business.