AFTER YEARS of fighting through sanctions and proxies, America and Iran have come to the brink of a direct confrontation. On the morning of June 20th Iran shot down an American spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran claims the aircraft was flying over its territorial waters, while America insists it was above international waters. Although Donald Trump growled that Iran had made a “big mistake,” he soon tried to downplay the incident. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” he said before a meeting with the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau. The president suggested that a “stupid” Iranian officer could have approved anti-aircraft fire without the approval of his superiors.
But by evening, American media reported, Mr Trump had approved his own response: air strikes on radar and missile batteries in Iran. Congressional leaders were summoned for a White House briefing. The New York Times reported that American warplanes were already in the air. Then Mr Trump abruptly cancelled the strikes.
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There has been no official confirmation of any of this, yet the details leaked almost in real time. Perhaps this is simply a head-fake from a president who built a business career on bluster. Indeed, Iranian officials claim that Mr Trump warned them of the strikes in advance. In a message passed via Oman, which has acted as a mediator in the past, he reportedly insisted that he did not want war and called for negotiations.
Or perhaps his apparent volte-face reflects the turmoil in Mr Trump’s national-security apparatus. He campaigned on ending American military adventures in the Middle East. But his national security adviser, John Bolton, is a longtime Iran hawk who has advocated military action in the past. America has not had a permanent defense secretary since James Mattis stepped down in December. On June 19th Mr Trump announced that his acting defence chief, Patrick Shanahan, was also leaving amid allegations of domestic violence involving his wife and son.
Confrontation in the Gulf has been building for more than a year, since Mr Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal that Iran signed with America and other powers in 2015. The accord had lifted some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme. As the Trump administration sought to choke off Iran’s oil exports through renewed sanctions, Iran kept up its end of the bargain until May, then announced that it would begin stockpiling low-enriched uranium in excess of the prescribed limits. It expects to breach that threshold later this month.
It has also seemingly pursued an aggressive, albeit shadowy, response in the region. In May saboteurs blew holes in four oil tankers anchored off the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. Two more tankers were attacked as they sailed in the Gulf of Oman on June 13th. America blames Iran for both incidents (investigators have not made any formal conclusions). It released photographs that show sailors from Iran’s navy removing what appears to be an unexploded limpet mine from one of the ships damaged earlier this month. The Houthis, a Yemeni Shia militia that receives assistance from Iran, have launched several attacks on Saudi infrastructure with missiles and drones, striking an oil pipeline and an international airport, and missing a desalination plant.
The attacks on shipping threaten freedom of navigation in a waterway through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes. Firing anti-aircraft missiles over the Gulf poses another risk: the region is a busy air corridor full of jumbo jets, particularly from large Gulf carriers like Qatar Airways. In 1988 an American warship mistook a passenger jet operated by Iran Air for a military aircraft and shot it down, killing all 290 people on board. After the drone incident, the Federal Aviation Administration warned American aircraft to avoid Iran’s airspace over the Persian Gulf.
America and its Gulf allies will feel the need to restore deterrence. An American aircraft-carrier group, B-52 bombers and extra American troops have already been sent to the Middle East region. But air strikes against Iran could just as easily do the opposite. Shooting down the drone sends a message about Iran’s capabilities. The aircraft, an RQ-4, is built to fly at up to 18,300 metres (60,000 feet), almost twice as high as a commercial airliner. That Iran was able to shoot it down suggests its air defences may be better than America thought.
Still unclear in all of this is exactly what Mr Trump wants. He has suggested that he simply wants a tougher nuclear deal. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has outlined a set of demands that ask Iran not just to limit its nuclear work but realign its entire foreign policy. Mr Bolton, as a private citizen, called for regime change. Critics of the deal argued that the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign would force Iran to renegotiate. But it was always more likely to end like this—in steady escalation, with no end in sight.
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