Does Iran’s downing of a rather expensive U.S. drone on June 20 signal a new level of aggression by the radical Islamic regime? Perhaps. But in one respect, it also clarifies a few issues.
I say this because U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a new policy regarding Iran and the United States. It’s simple and direct: Any U.S. deaths by Iranian proxies would result in a U.S. military response against Iran. Not just against their proxies, but against Iran itself.
Although this policy change itself received little notice here in the United States, apparently, the Iranians got the message loud and clear: Killing Americans will come at a steep and deadly price.
A New Red Line?
The Iranians have likely assessed the new policy and are testing it by avoiding the one caveat in it: the avoidance of taking American lives. It would appear their recent attacks have been very carefully thought through. Hit back at U.S. assets and oil tankers, but avoid killing U.S. citizens altogether.
Is this just another new “red line” by another U.S. president? One may certainly call a Trump administration response to the spilling of American blood by Iran or its proxies a red line, and that would be accurate. But there are red lines and then there are red lines.
Recall that in August 2012, President Barack Obama formally spoke about a red line that Syria must not cross regarding the use of chemical weapons. But the Syrians used them anyway and Obama quickly backed down. By issuing the red line and then failing to back it up, Obama inflicted serious damage not only to his reputation on the world stage, but to U.S. prestige and credibility in the region, and around the world as well.
This lack of will and credibility is one of the Obama-era failures that Trump has been determined to overcome. Thus, Pompeo’s “red line” to Iran would appear to be a red line. It comes with a credible threat to back it up in the person of President Donald Trump, as well as an aircraft carrier battle group and B-52 bombers that he dispatched to the region.
But for the Iranians, limiting their strikes to inanimate objects isn’t a realistic plan, not even in the short term. It’s too risky. In military actions, casualties happen. Collateral damage is inevitable.
But the Iranians have their reasons for doing so. For one, their economy is suffering under heavy U.S. sanctions. For another, they don’t like seeing Trump in the White House, his undoing of the nuclear treaty, and his pro-Israel stance. Thirdly, they don’t want U.S. drones snooping on their communications.
But what, specifically, was their motivation to attack a U.S. drone? What were they hoping to accomplish?
Calling Trump’s Bluff?
Maybe they’re simply calling Trump’s bluff. If he takes the bait, he starts a war with Iran. But he hasn’t done so—yet. Will there be more incidents to come? What then?
For example, how many drones will Iran be allowed to shoot out of the sky before the United States reacts? How many more oil tankers will be attacked, threatening 20 percent of the world’s oil supplies? What target will Iran hit next, and how will Trump respond to that?
So far, there has been a minimal response from the United States and, notably, Trump called off a military strike on several targets within Iran after approving it, determining that the estimated death toll of 150 Iranians would be disproportionate to the downing of an unmanned drone. It appears that for the moment, Trump isn’t taking Iran’s war bait.
Can Trump Be Manipulated?
But Trump’s policy is certainly open to manipulation. Committing strategic bombers to the region is a bold statement in and of itself. Threatening to use them is one thing; doing so is quite another. Both Trump and Iran’s leaders know that if he decides to do so, it will open up a Pandora’s box of uncertainty and risk.
On the other hand, failure to use the assets that have been so publicly placed in the region also sends a message. It’s the Obama red-line syndrome all over again, and Trump knows the consequences of such a replay. Iran realizes that these are two big considerations for Trump, especially given his very public position of reducing U.S. involvement in Mideast wars, not increasing it.
There are other considerations as well. China, for example, is challenging the U.S. sanctions against buying Iranian oil. How long will that be allowed? Stopping Chinese oil purchases—or any others—from Iran could certainly require much more than a few airstrikes. That’s likely to prove to be a bigger challenge to the Trump administration than responding—or not responding—to a downed drone.
Has Trump Laid His Own War Trap?
Is Trump’s as-of-yet nonresponse to the downing of the drone sending the right message? Perhaps so. It certainly makes him look like a paragon of restraint, compared to some of his more hawkish advisors. But it also ramps up the pressure to respond to the next incident, which will likely happen sooner than later.
But there is always the risk of overplaying a policy, as well as deciding not to carry it out. Would a strike in retaliation against U.S. casualties or an attack on U.S. assets be the catalyst the Iranians might well be hoping for, to spark a wider war in the region? Would it be worth it to the Iranians to trap Trump in his own war, in the hopes that he would be replaced by a much weaker and more conciliatory president in 2020?
Are they thinking that far ahead? It’s likely they are. Iran may be a bad actor, but it isn’t stupid.
James Gorrie is a writer based in Texas. He is the author of “The China Crisis.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.