US mulls ‘measured’ strikes as Iran prepares to break nuclear limits

According to analyst Roland Popp, Iran has only two options left: to remain patient and hope that Trump would not be re-elected next year “or war.”
Sunday 23/06/2019
Suspended strikes. Iranians walk past a mural painting along the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, June 22, 2019.  (AFP)
Suspended strikes. Iranians walk past a mural painting along the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, June 22, 2019. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - The Gulf region is sliding towards war as the United States considers “measured” strikes against Iran while Tehran threatens to retaliate, officials said.

Iran’s announcement to break limits set by the international nuclear deal is making it more difficult for mediators to find a solution and irritating European powers.

Reports from Washington said that although initial plans for retaliatory strikes were abandoned at the last minute, the administration of US President Donald Trump was still considering a “measured” military response after Iran shot down a US unmanned aerial vehicle over the Strait of Hormuz. Washington said the drone was flying in international airspace but Iran claimed it had breached its border.

 Trump said in a news interview June 21 that the initially planned strikes were aborted because of wariness about Iranian casualties.

“Ten minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” Trump said.

“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night,” Trump also wrote on Twitter.

The New York Times quoted a senior administration official as saying US warplanes took to the air and ships were put in position for a retaliatory attack before an order to stand down without any weapons being fired.

It was unclear if attacks on Iran might go ahead later, the newspaper said, nor was it known whether Trump had changed his mind or whether his administration had become concerned about logistics or strategy.

Iranian officials told Reuters that Tehran had received a message from Trump through Oman warning that a US attack on Iran was imminent. Tehran said Iran would retaliate if the United States attacked. The IRNA news agency quoted Mohsen Baharvand, a senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official, as saying the United States would “receive a reciprocal response whose consequences are unpredictable.”

The military escalation came after Tehran signalled it was ready to surpass limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran said Tehran was prepared to enrich uranium to a higher level if Europe did not step in. The agency said Iran would exceed limits under the accord on stockpiles of enriched uranium as early as June 27.

Tehran’s steps could mean the end of the 2015 nuclear deal, whose fate has been in doubt since the United States left the agreement last year.

European countries want to save the JCPOA because they see it as the best opportunity to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon but they are facing an uphill task because of Washington’s pressure on Iran and Tehran’s determination to abandon the agreement if Europe does not find a way to shield its Iran trade from US sanctions.

Roland Popp, a security analyst focusing on Middle Eastern affairs, said: “Some people in Iran think that waving the nuclear card will create panic in European capitals, moving governments there to either challenge the US sanctions threat or to exert pressure on Washington to loosen the screws somewhat.”

“It is both a sign of a loss of patience on the Iranian side and of a gradual reassertion of a more hawkish approach,” Popp wrote in response to questions.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking after a cabinet meeting in Paris attended by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, said France and Germany would increase efforts to reduce tensions but conceded time was running out and the risk of war could not be ruled out.

“There is still time and we hope all the actors show more calm. There is still time but only a little time,” he said.

Recent visits by Maas and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Tehran failed to break the deadlock.

Britain, France and Germany plan a new push to keep Iran in the nuclear deal but they may be nearing the end of the diplomatic road, diplomats told Reuters. Iran said it was in talks with Russia and China on a possible settlement mechanism if discussions with the European Union fail.

Concern about a military confrontation has increased since attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman June 13 and on four tankers off the United Arab Emirates May 12, both near the Strait of Hormuz, a major conduit for global oil supplies. The United States and its regional ally, Saudi Arabia, blamed Iran for the incidents. Iran has denied responsibility.

Ted Deutch, a Democrat and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign “is increasing the chances of miscalculation, which then would bring the United States and Iran closer to a military conflict.”

The United States may not be the only side in the conflict risking miscalculation. Popp pointed to “a basic fault in the Iranian strategic calculus” that could end up strengthening Iran’s adversaries.

“If the Iranians resort to sizeably enrich uranium or even reopen the plutonium path, they will lose the moral high ground, force the Europeans back into Washington’s lap and also make it impossible for the Chinese and Russians to offer much help,” Popp wrote.

Options for Iran to solve the crisis politically are decreasing, Popp said. “The sad fact is that there is no way out even for a well-meaning and skilled Iranian strategist,” he wrote.

Bowing to US demands, which call on Iran to end enrichment activities and ballistic missile proliferation as well as to stop support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, among other things, was out of the question for Tehran, Popp said.

Iran had only two options left, he added: to remain patient and hope that Trump would not be re-elected next year “or war.”