Bottom Line Up Front
- President Trump’s revelation that the U.S. shot down an Iranian drone on July 18 suggests that tensions in the Gulf will not subside any time soon.
- The U.S. shootdown might have been intended to satisfy critics who opposed President Trump’s decision in June to refrain from retaliating for the Iranian downing of an American drone.
- Iran is unlikely to immediately respond to the downing in a direct fashion but will instead calibrate its retaliation so as not to prompt a major U.S. attack.
- The incident could lead to additional U.S. force deployments that might further heighten tensions without necessarily deterring Iranian aggression.
On July 18, President Trump told journalists that the U.S. shot down an Iranian unmanned surveillance aircraft. According to President Trump, ‘The [U.S.S.] Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone, which had closed into a near distance, approximately 1000 yards, ignoring multiple calls to stand down threatening safety of ship and ship’s crew.’ The downing comes one month after Iran shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle (RQ-4A Global Hawk) near the Strait of Hormuz, claiming it had entered Iranian airspace over the Gulf of Oman. Officials from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) stated that at the time of the incident, the drone was located over international waters. President Trump initially authorized retaliation for the Iranian downing of the U.S. drone, but called off a strike at the last minute, claiming that a U.S. strike would have killed Iranian personnel and therefore been a disproportionate response. Critics of Trump’s decision to forgo the attack, which apparently included longtime hardliners in the administration such as hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton, asserted that calling off U.S. retaliation would merely embolden Iran to undertake further provocative actions. The U.S. action on July 18 might have been intended, at least in part, to demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act militarily against Iran.
The question that immediately arises is whether Iran will respond to the U.S. shootdown. In recent weeks, Iran has continued to implement threats to Persian Gulf shipping as a cornerstone of its response to U.S. sanctions that have reduced Iran’s oil exports by more than 80% since mid-2018. In recent days, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy boats have sought to intercept a British oil tanker to retaliate for the UK-led seizure of an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria. On July 18, Iran confirmed it seized a small tanker, claiming it was involved in smuggling oil out of Iran. In May and June 2019, the IRGC Navy is believed responsible for attacks on six Saudi, UAE, and other oil tankers in the Gulf. If Iran’s leadership decides to retaliate for the July 18 U.S. shootdown, it will likely do so with similar attacks on shipping vessels in the Gulf.
These attacks serve Iran’s purpose by offering Tehran the benefit of ambiguity, and they have not resulted in any loss of life to date—thereby increasing the potential to further threaten Gulf shipping without necessarily provoking a major U.S. military response. Although Iran’s leaders are confident in their ability to deter President Trump from all-out war, the Iranian leadership’s primary purpose is not to enter into conflict with the United States while still achieving its regional objectives. Iran’s leadership intends to pressure the United States and its allies to ease sanctions, and to persuade the European countries to deliver the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement to Iran.
The U.S. shootdown nonetheless raises tensions in the Gulf to new levels and confirms that the United States and Iran remain locked in a pattern of mutual escalation. The political imperatives within Iran and the United States may drive leaders of both countries to deploy additional forces and assume increased risks in order to compel the other to back down. The U.S. shootdown of the Iranian drone will likely be accompanied by the announcement of additional U.S. force deployments to the Gulf—an action that will, in turn, catalyze Iranian hardliners to agitate for additional offensive responses. To date, mediators, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have failed to identify any face-saving solutions that will be required if all-out U.S.-Iran conflict is to be avoided in the near-term.