Thursday, Jul 18, 2019 | Last Update : 04:27 AM IST

Why Donald Trump ‘blinked’ in the crisis with Iran

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Jun 24, 2019, 7:35 am IST
Updated : Jun 24, 2019, 7:35 am IST

The implication was that there would be some military action, proportionate to the provocation.

US President Donald Trump
 US President Donald Trump

The shooting down of American drone RQ-4 Global Hawk by Iran on June 20 set off a crisis that had the potential to slip into a wider conflagration. US President Donald Trump, asked about the issue while hosting Canadian PM Justin Trudeau at White House, emphatically noted that Iran had made a “big mistake”. On being further asked what retaliatory action the US planned, he simply asked the media to wait and see. The implication was that there would be some military action, proportionate to the provocation.

Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif was quick to tweet that the exact coordinates where the drone was intercepted were within Iranian airspace. He added in a linked tweet that the “US wages #EconomicTerrorism on Iran, has conducted covert action against us... We don’t seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters”. The US, on the other hand, claimed the drone was over international airspace in the narrow corridor above the Straits of Hormuz. Although the US lost a drone worth $176 million, there was no loss of human life. The battlelines were now clearly drawn as the world awaited America's retaliation.

Retired US generals on American television speculated that by the rule of proportionality, the US could take out the batteries from where the missile was fired or some other standalone Iranian military asset. There was clearly a divide among President Trump’s advisers, with hawks like national security adviser John R. Bolton ranged against realists who advised that escalation may be what Iran sought to make it a crisis that forces other nations to step in and force both sides to the negotiating table.

The eventual outcome was anticlimactic as it was revealed that President Trump first approved a strike on three Iranian targets and then rescinded it a bare 10 minutes before execution. In his words later, the operation was “cocked and loaded”, but called off when Mr Trump, on learning that the likely casualty figures may total 150, aborted it considering it grossly disproportionate punishment. Israel had prepared for the consequences as Iran could have the Hezbollah in Lebanon open a fresh front by attacking Israel. Mr Trump’s last-minute restraint was seen in Israel as dithering that could embolden the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The US had recently cleared the sale of KC-46 mid-air refuelling tankers that would give the Israeli Air Force the capability to conduct operations over Iran. Iran, meanwhile, let it be known that it was watching both the drone and an accompanying P-8 Poseidon aircraft with a 30-odd crew, which was operating alongside it, but decided only to bring down the unmanned drone to convey a warning.

While a crisis has been averted, the US-Iran confrontation has not abated. It is estimated that the Iranian economy contracted by four per cent in 2018 due to US sanctions that are hitting Iranian oil exports. But Iran still has its gas exports to Iraq exempted by the US.

Oil is also considered to constitute only 20 per cent of the Iranian economy, though a preponderant part of its exports.

It is being speculated that Russia and China may help Iran establish mini-refineries to shift from dependence on crude for foreign exchange. Interestingly, the drone shooting down occurred two days after President Trump began his re-election campaign in Florida. It is speculated that what weighed against military retaliation was first Mr Trump's own reluctance to be drawn into fresh wars abroad, and even more significantly the advice that it could play badly domestically in what appears to be a tight race. Incidentally, the attack also comes on the brink of the June 26 opening debate among the Democratic Party’s main presidential contenders.

A third factor influencing a policy of restraint would have been that the Iranian attack now, and those suspected to be conducted by Iran earlier against Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers, indicates its frustration over the tightening noose of sanctions, leading to a slow strangulation of Iran's  economy. That is why President Trump intoned with a one-liner: “I am in no hurry.” But still there is dissonance among the US policy elite on the overall objective. Is it regime change, as Mr Bolton and other hawks propagate, or merely a change of Iranian behaviour, as President Trump appears to hint. Perhaps also in the US consideration would have been the shadow any US retaliatory attack would have cast over the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28-29. To not have that happen was also a primary reason that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to Iran before the current crisis to see if mediation was possible. The German foreign minister was also in Iran to explore if the nuclear deal (JCPOA) could be saved. That the IRGC brought the US drone down indicates a failure of peacemakers as they had little by way of sanctions relief to offer to get Iran to the negotiating table.

The US wishlist is an impossible one, seeking Iranian strategic restraint in the region, leaving UAE and Saudi Arabia to operate unhindered, limiting of Iranian missile capability and choking of the Iranian nuclear programme indefinitely. Iran is capable of beating the economic pain as its people tend to rally behind a government facing a foreign threat. Mr Trump may have shown that he too has a weak hand as he is constrained by the isolationist temper of his electoral base as indeed his own proclivity. Iran saw him dither over Venezuela, where the US refused to intervene as the dictatorial ruler eliminated the nascent challenge from the Opposition and thus chose to test him. Iran will do so again by pinpricking the US and its Gulf allies, while retaining the support of Russia and China.

India would be relieved by the temporary reprieve. But the US is likely to tighten sanctions on Iran and may even eliminate the few waivers.

The arrival of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in New Delhi will shift India’s focus to the Indo-US dissonance over trade and military sales.

But Iran, alongside Russia, would also be discussed. The tone and tenor of a possible Trump-Modi encounter on the sidelines of G-20 would be determined by the success or stalemate of Mr Pompeo’s interaction with new external affairs minister S. Jaishankar. India-US relations may now be entering, in cricketing terms, the slog overs. There is diminished space now for blocking the balls, which the Americans feel Indian diplomacy excels at.

Tags: justin trudeau, donald trump