By MARK MACKINNON
Saturday, June 22, 2019
The United States and Iran moved closer to the brink of armed conflict after U.S.
President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that the U.S. military had been "10 minutes" from attacking Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of a U.S. military drone over the Persian Gulf on Thursday. The shooting, if it starts, will be difficult to contain.
Mr. Trump said the United States had been ready to strike three Iranian targets on Thursday night, but he had cancelled the order when he was told that 150 people would likely die in the attack, a number Mr. Trump said was "not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone."
Major airlines, including British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and all major U.S. carriers, said on Friday that they were avoiding the Strait of Hormuz area after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned of a "potential for miscalculation or misidentification" in the region. Iranian media reported that Mr. Trump tried to open back-channel negotiations with Iranian leaders through the government of Oman. The request was passed on to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Reuters quoted an unnamed Iranian official saying Ayatollah Khamenei is against any talks, but he had not announced a decision.
If Mr. Trump had consulted his Middle East advisers, they might have told him that any attack on Iran risked provoking a furious regionwide response that could quickly draw several other countries into the fray. Head-tohead, Iran has no answer to American military might, but its array of proxy armies can wreak havoc against U.S. allies and interests in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in addition to targeting oil traffic in the Persian Gulf.
Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are suspected in a series of near-daily mortar and rocket attacks over the past week that have targeted U.S. troops and oil companies.
Because of their small scale, the attacks could be interpreted as warning shots hinting at the trouble Iran could make in Iraq, which, like Iran, has a Shia Muslim majority.
In Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthi militia - a Shia force battling pro-government troops supported by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - has in recent days demonstrated an ability to carry the war onto the soil of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, striking at southern Saudi cities with drones and medium-range rockets.
Iran has also been blamed for a pair of attacks over the past month that damaged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, sending crude prices skyward each time.
Iran denied involvement in both attacks, calling the U.S. accusations - which were backed by grainy video of men on speedboats removing an unexploded mine from one of the damaged tankers - "warmongering."
But it's Israel that could bear the brunt of Tehran's response to any U.S. attack on Iran. Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia - another Iranian military asset - have been at daggers drawn since a 2006 war that ended with at least 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis dead, much of south Lebanon destroyed and Hezbollah's military capabilities largely intact.
Hezbollah, which rained rockets down on Haifa and other Israeli cities throughout that 34day war, is believed to possess five times as many missiles today as it did in 2006. Iran and Hezbollah are also believed to have established bases in Syria, where they have fought on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime throughout the eight-yearold civil war. Israel's military now views Lebanon and Syria as a single "northern front," with the border between the two states increasingly irrelevant as Hezbollah moves back and forth across it.
Any action against Iran and its allies in Syria is complicated by the presence of Russian warplanes and anti-aircraft batteries.
Russia and Iran have fought on the same side, in support of Mr.
al-Assad, in Syria's civil war, though, Russian air defences have stayed conspicuously quiet as Israel has carried out repeated air strikes against suspected Iranian arms depots in the country over the past 31/2 years.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told The Globe and Mail that Israel was on alert for escalated Hezbollah activity in both Lebanon and Syria as the U.S.
and Iran jousted in the Persian Gulf. Lt.-Col. Conricus said that if Hezbollah were to attack, Israel would respond even more fiercely than it did in 2006. Hezbollah, he said, knew that it would be "unwise" for it to attack Israel.
"Today, we are effectively sitting on a powder keg where both Israel and Hezbollah - we definitely aren't seeking to escalate the situation." But, Lt.-Col. Conricus added, the decision will ultimately be made over the head of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. "Hezbollah's decisions are executed in Lebanon, but made in Tehran.
... Hezbollah is a tool on the Iranian chessboard. They've used it in the past and it's possible they will use it again."
Another group that receives Iranian funding is the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which is based in the Gaza Strip.
It's unclear whether Hamas would be willing or able to prevent Islamic Jihad from firing rockets into Israel if Iran gave the order.
The new tensions between the U.S. and Iran date back to May of last year when Mr. Trump cancelled a multinational deal - brokered in 2015 by Barack Obama's White House - that saw Iran put its nuclear ambitions on hold in exchange for the lowering of Western economic sanctions against the country. The U.S.
withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, and the reimposition of sanctions sparked an economic crisis inside Iran. The country's currency, the rial, has lost roughly three-quarters of its value over the past year in blackmarket trading. (Iran officially pegs its currency at rates most Iranians and Iranian businesses ignore.)
Iran said last week that it was again enriching uranium, and warned that by June 27 it would exceed the caps it had agreed to under the JCPOA unless the other signatories to the deal - Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany - found a way to protect Iran from the effects of the U.S. sanctions. Exceeding those technical caps would bring Iran closer to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium.
In his series of Friday-morning tweets, Mr. Trump said Iran would not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. He claimed that the sanctions imposed by his administration were working.
"They are a much weakened nation today than at the beginning of my Presidency, when they were causing major problems throughout the Middle East. Now they are Bust!" he wrote.
But Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under Mr. Obama, said it was Mr.
Trump's cancellation of the nuclear deal and the return of sanctions that had led to Iran's new willingness to challenge the U.S.
military in the region.
"As long as the JCPOA was in place, it made sense for Iran to keep its powder dry," Mr. Shapiro said in an interview after the June 13 attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and before the drone incident. "Now, under sanctions, we see these tanker attacks. ... There's no question the sanctions are having an impact on the Iranian economy - but in the service of what?"
Brian Hook, centre, the U.S. special representative on Iran, visits an army base near Riyadh on Friday, checking what Saudi Arabian officials say were Iranian-made Houthi missiles, drones intercepted over Saudi territory and missile debris.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/ AFP/GETTY IMAGES