As tensions continue to escalate in the Iran-US crisis, so does the potential threat of war. The recent conflict between the two countries began in May 2018, when the US President Donald Trump abandoned an international agreement known as P5+1; a deal which involved the removal of economic sanctions against Iran in return for decreased nuclear activity and international supervision. In June 2019, the President imposed several hard-hitting new sanctions on Iran, including on the office of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. According to the President, these sanctions were in response to the shooting down of a US military surveillance drone by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) while flying over the Strait of Hormuz on June 20. While the IRGC claims the aircraft had violated Iranian airspace, and the incident sent a “clear message to America”, the US military insists the drone had been over international waters at the time, and condemned what it called an “unprovoked attack” by the IRGC.
The history of Iran-US relations has always been turbulent, especially since the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which the US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, was forced to leave the country following months of demonstrations and strikes against his rule by secular and religious opponents. In 1988, the American warship USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Flight in the Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. While the US claims the Airbus A300 was mistaken for a fighter jet, many thought it to be an Islamophobic attack, as many of the victims were Iranian pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Tensions between the two countries reached a breaking point in the early 2000s, and in 2002 President George Bush denounced Iran as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea. The US accused Iran of a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, and what followed was a decade of diplomatic activity and severe economic sanctions which caused Iran’s currency to lose two-thirds of its value in two years.
However, in recent years it appeared as though Iran-US relations were improving. In September 2013, following the inauguration of Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, he and US President Barack Obama spoke via phone, marking the first such high-status conversation in more than 30 years. Then in 2015, following a period of peaceful diplomatic activity, Iran agreed to a long-term deal on its nuclear programme with a group of world powers known as the P5+1 – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions imposed under the Bush administration. Before July 2015, the month of the P5+1 agreement, Iran possessed a large stockpile of enriched uranium and almost 20,000 centrifuges, enough to build 8 to 10 nuclear bombs. The P5+1 agreement reduced Iran’s uranium stockpile by 98%, a figure not to be exceeded until 2031. Iran also agreed to implement the Additional Protocol to their IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which allowed inspectors to access any site anywhere in the country they deem suspicious. This agreement was thought by many to be the first step in the right direction for international peace and Iranian austerity.
That all changed in May of last year when the US President Donald Trump announced that the US would violate the Iran nuclear agreement, nearly three years after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed. The president justified the exit by claiming that Iran was building a nuclear program, and that “a constructive deal could have been easily struck at the time, but it wasn’t”. He also announced that the US will re-impose sanctions against Iran, which will be rolled up in keeping with 90 day and 180 day wind-down periods. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened to restart the nuclear activities it halted under the agreement if Europe failed to safeguard Iran’s economic interests. According to the Supreme Leader, “since the beginning of the revolution till today, the US has committed all kinds of animosity to hit the Islamic Republic”, and the actions of Donald Trump, much like some of his predecessors, will inevitably “be lost to history”.
Fast-forward to June 2019, tensions between the US and Iran continue to escalate, and the possibility of war starts to appear more of a reality. On June 13, two oil tankers were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz while they transited the Gulf of Oman. It was the second time in a month tankers had been attacked in the region, and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly accused Iran of being responsible for the attacks. This is based on the “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication”. However, Iran has repeatedly said it had no knowledge of the attacks and had not instructed any of its allied forces to attack Gulf shipping or Saudi installations.
A week later on June 20, Iran-US relations reached yet another breaking point as Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) shot down a US military surveillance drone after it violated Iranian airspace near Kuhmobarak in the southern province of Hormozgan. In response, US spokesman Navy Captain Bill Urban said that “Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false” and that “this was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace”. However, the IRGC commander-in-chief Maj-Gen Hossein Salami said that the incident sent a “clear message to America” to respect Iran’s territorial integrity. He warned that “those who defend the borders of the Islamic nation of Iran will react in a total and decisive way to any intrusions by foreign elements on our land” and that “Iran is not seeking war with any country, but we are fully prepared to defend Iran”. This statement led to a series of tweets by the US President in which he said the American forces were “cocked and loaded” to strike “three different sights” the night of the drone attack, but that he had called off the military action “10 minutes before the strike”. If the strike had gone ahead, “approximately 150” Iranians would have died. The US President didn’t think this was “proportionate” considering the situation.
Instead, on Monday 24 June President Trump announced that he was imposing new sanctions on Iran, including on the office of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in retaliation for what the United States considered recent aggressive acts by Tehran. President Trump said the sanctions would target the eight senior Iranian commanders who “sit atop a bureaucracy that supervises the IRGC’s malicious regional activities” and that their leader Ali Khamenei was “ultimately responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime”. These sanctions would deny “Iran’s leadership access to financial resources and authorise the targeting of persons appointed to certain official or other positions by the Supreme Leader or the Supreme Leader’s Office”, as well as foreign financial institutions that help them conduct transitions. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, described the Trump administration as “afflicted by a mental disability” and the sanctions against Khamenei were “outrageous and idiotic”, especially as the 80-year-old has no overseas assets and no plans to ever travel to the US.
With tensions at an all-time high, the Iran-US crisis is beginning to take on a global significance. While Iran has previously said it is ideologically and religiously opposed to acquiring nuclear weapons and seeks nuclear power only for civilian purposes, on the 27 June Tehran warned it would breach the limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium set out in the 2015 nuclear deal. This has led to major problems in Europe, with France, Germany and the UK desperate to keep the deal alive but unable to find a solution to the crisis between Tehran and Washington. The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warned Iran not to breach the uranium enrichment limits, arguing that “it is absolutely essential they stick to the deal in its entirety for it to preserve and for us to have a nuclear-free Middle East”. However, in the case of future military action, Hunt said that “the US is our closest ally… but I cannot envisage any situation where they request, or we agree to, any moves to go to war”.
Yet, with the US President threatening Iran with “obliteration” if they were to attack “anything American”, the possibility of war between the US and Iran may soon become a reality. After decades of violent tension, could the events of the last few months light the spark that ignites the fire? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, the Iran-US conflict is at a breaking point, and what comes next will shape relations between the West and the Middle East for years to come.