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40 Years Later, The Real Iran-US War Is Imminent

June 21, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

The destruction of an RQ-4A BAMS-D Global Hawk on June 20, a Thursday, and the subsequent claim by Iran that its air defenses shot down the ISR drone, proved a sufficient cassus belli for unilateral US airstrikes on the Islamic Republic. The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed this with scoops on imminent retaliatory actions by ships and aircraft near the Persian Gulf but these were called off on Thursday night. There are no further reports on the arrival of US military assets in the Middle East nor are there formal announcements regarding attacks against Iran.

These events come just a week after the US blamed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for crippling two oil tankers–the Japan-owned Kokuka Courageous and the Norway-owned Front Altair–near the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker attacks occurred two months and five days since the Trump administration labeled the IRGC a terrorist group.

There are two competing narratives behind the loss of the Global Hawk. On the same day Iran announced it had shot down the drone, US Central Command (CENTCOM) acknowledged a “BAMS-D was shot down by an SAM…in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 11:35 PM GMT on June 19.” But Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed in a tweet from his official Twitter account (@JZarif) that the Global Hawk was being tracked from 00:14 AM on Thursday morning and it was destroyed at 4:05 AM near a location named “Kouh-e Mobarak.” Zarif added the wreckage of the Global Hawk was collected “in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down.”

The yellow dot is the location of the Global Hawk when it was intercepted. Via @JZarif Twitter account.

Both CENTCOM and Javad Zarif released maps indicating where the drone was lost. CENTCOM rubbished any Iranian claims on the Global Hawk’s location, stating “at the time of the intercept, the RQ-4 was operating at high altitude approximately 34 kilometers from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast.” Hours after US media broke the news of Trump calling off US air and missile strikes on Iran, an Iranian press agency released photos revealing fragments collected from the Global Hawk’s airframe. The loss of this particular model adds to Iran’s boast that it collects advanced US-made drones.

Even before the Trump administration entered office in 2016 the US military always reinforced its position in the Arabian Peninsula to deter Iran’s leaders from pursuing nuclear weapons technology. In 2012 the Obama administration (2008-2016) sent carrier strike groups to the Gulf as a clear warning. Two years later the JCPOA was signed and resulted in a complete halt to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The Bush administration (2000-2008) was less forgiving toward a country it demonized as part of an “Axis of Evil” and unilateral strikes on Iran were in the planning stages toward the end of President Bush’ second term. Only the Clinton administration (1993-2000) managed to somewhat establish normal communications with Iran during the late 1990s.

The Reagan administration (1980-1988) had a complicated relationship with the Islamic Republic, which was then prosecuting a costly war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From 1985 until 1986 members of the US military colluded with Iranian agents for weapons shipments. This came to light during the Iran-Contra Scandal, where officers of the US military received payments from Iran for US-made ordnance and sent the money to anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua. Then in April 1988 warships of the US Navy fought a battle against the IRGC during Operation Praying Mantis and two months later an Iranian passenger jet was mistakenly shot down by the USS Vincennes.

Map released by CENTCOM of the Global Hawk’s flight path and last known location. Via @CENTCOM twitter account.

Since the 1979 revolution that toppled the absolute ruler Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran and the US never established normal bilateral relations. Two heinous terrorist acts, the 1983 truck bomb that destroyed the US Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, are attributed to Iranian agents. Tehran is also responsible for threatening US allies in the Middle East and funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Since US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 Iran has strengthened its regional influence. Tehran’s advisers and proxies helped Assad survive the Syrian Civil War (2011-present), helped Iraq defeat Islamic State (2014-2017), helped Yemen’s Houthis resist a GCC-led invasion (2015-present), and helped Hezbollah become a real military.

A crucial factor that deepens the antagonism between Tehran and Washington, DC, is the unchecked rhetoric from both capitals. Iranian leaders demonize the US habitually and their American counterparts are no different. Another weakness in Iran-US dialogue is the lack of embassies in their respective capitals. There’s no fully staffed US embassy in Tehran, neither is there an Iranian embassy in Washington, DC. This leaves the heads of state and their staff to thresh out and define a tangible relationship, an extremely difficult task since Iranian and US leaders are predisposed toward maintaining the status quo.

Since announcing the US’ exit from the JCPOA in June 2018, no alternatives are being pursued by Washington, DC to discourage Iran’s own hostile behavior. Now that both sides are unwilling to enter high level talks in a neutral location–no other meetings are possible–the risk of further clashes is immediate. Iran won’t acknowledge US demands, which are ridiculous, and neither is the Trump administration easing its “maximum pressure.”

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