Iran Pokes the Eagle and The Eagle Responds, Is War Next?

by | Jul 23, 2019 |

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Tensions in the Middle East are growing as Iran continues to push the envelope of Western forbearance. America does not want a war with Iran. Neither do the countries of Europe. And although the left has been hammering President Trump as a war-monger, he really has done nothing to provoke the current situation.

It is Iran that has been on a campaign of growing harassment of Western interests and doesn’t seem to be interested in stopping any time soon. And to add fuel to the growing fire, it has also announced that it will accelerate its nuclear program to enhance its uranium stock to near weapons grade. 

Iran has already taken out a U.S. drone, attacked eight ships in and around the Strait of Hormuz, hijacked two British-flagged ships in 24 hours in the Strait of Hormuz, and has now arrested 17 Iranians in Iran on charges of spying for the CIA.

Iran is attacking the West, and it doesn’t seem to care that the high stakes in the game could lead the world into war. Quite the opposite, it seems to relish the possibility.

The situation is complicated, and the crisis is growing, but here is a quick timeline of how it grew:

May 18, 2018: President Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), it was negotiated by then Secretary of State John Kerry on behalf of then President Barack Obama.

Trump called that agreement “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made. It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will. . . . . Not only does the deal fail to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but it also fails to address the regime’s development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads. . . . . America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail. 

“We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction. And we will not allow a regime that chants “Death to America” to gain access to the most deadly weapons on Earth.” 

And then the President signed a Presidential Memorandum “to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction. Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States.”

August 7, 2018: The US administration re-imposed a round of sanctions on Iran, which had been lifted as part of the JCPOA. The sanctions prohibited trade with a number of Iranian business sectors that included aviation, carpets, gold, and pistachio nuts. 

November 5, 2018: The US imposed another round of sanctions, specifically targeting the oil and banking sectors.

April 8, 2019: Trump announced that he was designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization. This was the first time that the U.S. had named an official arm of a foreign government a terrorist entity.

May 5, 2019: John Bolton announced that the U.S. was sending the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force from the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean to join the Fifth Fleet in the U.S. Central Command region on the Middle East. This boosted the U.S. presence in the Arabian Sea, as Iran was flexing its muscles with the beginning of attacks on commercial shipping.

On that same day, Iran announced that it was preparing to increase its enriched uranium and heavy water production. They said that this was part of its new program to put an end to some of its commitments that were made within the framework of the JCPOA.

May 12, 2019: Four tankers were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), most probably by Iran. One was due to take a delivery of Saudi oil to the United States. The attack did not cause any casualties or oil spills; but they did cause significant damage to two of the four ships.

May 19, 2019: A rocket that was attributed to Iranian sources landed near the US embassy in Baghdad. And while there were no casualties, President Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

May 24, 2019: Trump ordered 1,500 more troops to the Middle East to support American forces already there.

June 13, 2019: Two tankers, one Norwegian and the other Japanese, came under attack in the Gulf of Oman. They were attacked with limpet mines that blew large holes in the ships, both of which were loaded with highly flammable petrochemicals. The attacks were carried out by the IRGC. The two ships, one in flames, had to be towed back to port. This occurred during a formal visit to Iran by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had gone to Iran to offer mediation help.

June 17, 2019: The Pentagon authorized an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East.

June 20, 2019: Iranian forces shot down a sophisticated U.S. surveillance drone. According to the U.S., the drone was flying over international waters, although Iran insisted that it was shot down over its territory.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held Iran responsible, based on “intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”  

June 21, 2019: Trump uses Twitter to inform America that he had called off a retaliatory attack on Iran the night before, ten minutes before it had been scheduled to launch.

June 24, 2019: Trump imposed sanctions on senior Iranian leaders — including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

July 1, 2019: Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that Iran had gone beyond the allowed limit of low-enriched uranium under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, and that it would continue to increase its uranium enrichment level beyond 3.67 percent — bringing it closer to weapons-grade level. He warned Europe to ease up on some of the financial pressure it was applying on his country, or face a nuclear Iran.

July 3, 2019: Iran confirmed its threat to increase uranium enrichment. Rouhani said, “Our enrichment rate is not going to be 3.67 percent anymore. It’s going to be as much as we want it to be.”

July 4, 2019: Britain seized an Iranian supertanker off the shores of Gibraltar. The ship was suspected of breaking EU sanctions by carrying oil to Syria.

July 9, 2019: The UK raised the threat to British shipping in Iranian waters in the Gulf to its highest level –  “critical”.

July 10, 2019:  Iran tried to stop a British tanker, but was warned off by another British ship.

July 17, 2019: Another ship, the Panamanian-flagged tanker MT Riah, which is based in the United Arab Emirates, was reported missing, with 25 crew members on board. It was last seen in the Persian Gulf, where it was being escorted by Iranian naval vessels. All communications, including the transponder that reports its location, were unresponsive. Officials believe that the Riah was seized by Iran and taken to port, although Iran said that it only responded to a distress call from the MT Riah, and came to its rescue. Strangely, no other ships reported receiving a distress call from the tanker. One report placed the ship at a base belonging to the IRGC force. One source report that the Riah was actually sailing through the international shipping channel in the Strait of Hormuz and was pushed into Iranian waters by Iranian boats. Nevertheless, Panamanian authorities have begun the process of deregistering the ship, as it has already done with some 60 other ships.

July 18, 2019: U.S. Marines identified and then jammed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz., which brought it down and destroyed it. It was flying within a thousand yards from the ship. Iran, of course,s denied it.

July 19, 2019: Two British tankers were seized by Iran. The MV Mesder, and the UK flagged, Swedish-owned Stena Impero. It was the latest bit of Iranian mischief – and very serious indeed.

The Mesder was ultimately allowed to continue on its journey, but the Steno Impero, with 23 crew members on board, is still being held by the IRGC. The IRGC later announced on the Iran’s state television that the ship had been boarded for “violating international maritime rules”.

Crew of Steno Impero on the floor (without their shoes which are piled on the floor at the bottom of the photo) after the IRGC seized the ship

A video released by Iran here shows the Iranian IRGC seizing the ship, abseiling onto it from a helicopter (at minute 1:04, hear one of the IRGC fighters shouting “Allahu Akhbar!”). The British claimed that the tanker was in Omani waters when it was illegally seized by Revolutionary Guard special forces, and they produced naval charts to prove that. The British also complained to the UN in a letter which read, in part, “Current tensions are extremely concerning, and our priority is to de-escalate. We do not seek confrontation with Iran. But it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to threaten shipping going about its legitimate business through internationally recognized transit corridors.”

Sources say that British Prime Minister Theresa May turned down a U.S. offer of protection for British shipping in the region. If true, that seems to have been a major miscalculation.

In the mean time, President Trump has called on other countries to send their naval ships to the area to protect their ships and investments from the Iranians.

July 22, 1019: Iran announced the arrest of seventeen Iranians who have been accused of spying on its nuclear and military sites for the CIA. According to their announcement, some of them have been sentenced to death. At a news conference in Teheran, an unnamed official gave few details, did not name those arrested, or tell how many were sentenced to death. This is still an open story, and one we will follow closely.

What we do know is that every one of these incidents has been calculated to increase the threat and the danger of war between Iran and the West.

So what does this all mean? Why is Iran Provoking the West?

It has long been a problem of U.S. diplomacy that our diplomats tend to think that everyone in the world thinks as we do, wants what we want, and dreams the same dreams we do with all the trappings of a free, capitalistic society – if only they really knew how good it was. That is how the story of “the ugly American” was born, as our representatives abroad tried to impose our values on people who didn’t share them.

We are, I think, a bit more savvy today. And our President certainly is. But we still may be lacking in the understanding of people who don’t want us to understand them.

Take Iran, for example. The super religious mullahs don’t want what we have. They have a far different dream. They dream of the coming of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam, their Messiah, and that he will bring the Caliphate for all the world to either embrace Islam as they see it, or die as infidels. And they believe, as believing Shia Muslims, that there must be a period of chaos before the Mahdi comes.

So what, do you think, are the chances of their also believing that if they create the chaos, maybe the Mahdi will come sooner?

If this theory is valid, then we need to understand what we are up against a lot better than we do. And our analysts, the ones who help our leaders to define the issues and recommend the strategies as we move forward, need to recognize that those who are waiting for the Mahdi are not afraid of a war – in fact, they welcome it, at any cost.

This is a complex issue and I will cover it more completely a later column. For the moment, suffice it to say that as we move forward in this confrontation with Iran, we had better understand that there are issues here that are not familiar to most of us, that are not of this world, that relate to a theology that we do not understand. And it’s high time we change that before we blunder into a war that will be far more dangerous and far more destructive than we can imagine.

How do you threaten a man who is ready to die for his cause? Who is ready to sacrifice his people for the greater cause of Islam?

It is easy for the left to blame President Trump for the growing peril arising in the Middle East. But it is clear from the recent history that Iran is playing chicken with the Western world and daring us to respond. The President has said that he does not want another war. But in the end, he may not have any choice.

Ilana Freedman

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst with more than thirty years in the field. She was trained in Israel, where she lived and worked for sixteen years. After returning to the U.S., she served as CEO of Gerard Group International in Massachusetts, providing major corporations and government agencies with intelligence-led support for their homeland security programs. Her global network of specialists and field assets has provided her with an ongoing resource of critical, real-time intelligence and domain expertise. Today, Ilana is an independent consultant and author of hundreds of articles on terrorism and the geopolitical landscape. She has written four books on Islamic terrorism, and is currently working on a comprehensive book on China - past, present, and future.

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