Jul 18, 2019

Finding a way off the U.S.-Iran ledge

Trump on Thursday at the White House. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

An American warship "destroyed" an Iranian drone operating in the Strait of Hormuz, President Trump announced Thursday.

Why it matters: When Iran downed a U.S. drone last month, it very nearly led to a military conflict. Thursday's move came hours after news that Iran had seized a foreign oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz — the latest in a string of incidents in or near the narrow waterway through which one-fifth of the world's oil supply travels.

  • The Pentagon says the Iranian drone "closed within a threatening range" of the USS Boxer, which "took defensive action."
  • CNN's Barbara Starr reports that the drone was "brought down by electric warfare jamming." Trump said only that it was "immediately destroyed."

The big picture: During the current crisis, windows for diplomacy have seemed to open and then quickly close.

  • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the BBC this week that Iran wouldn't let Trump "bully" his way into talks. But he also floated a deal that would allow for permanent nuclear inspections in exchange for permanent sanctions relief.
  • Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy to Iran, said at an Atlantic Council event yesterday that the U.S. is willing to talk "with no preconditions," but won't take any "concrete steps" to secure dialogue. If Iran balks at diplomacy on those terms, he said, "our sanctions will continue to intensify.”

Between the lines: Trump has showed clear interest in talks. Politico reports he gave dovish Sen. Rand Paul license to intermediate on his behalf, potentially with Zarif this week in New York. French President Emmanuel Macron seems eager to play a similar role.

“The Iranians take anyone who has a direct link to the president and who does not belong to the Bolton-Pompeo camp seriously, because they understand the president is mostly interested in dealmaking but almost no one else in this administration feels that way," says Ali Vaez, Iran director for the International Crisis Group, who has been speaking with Iranian officials.

  • Vaez says the Iranians feel strongly that the onus is on Trump to make the first concession, even if they know he won't meet their demand to unwind all U.S. sanctions.
  • He says there might be a deal to be made whereby Iran returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and the U.S. loosens its stranglehold on Iranian oil exports.

Getting there wouldn't be easy.

  • The Iranians prefer to communicate via backchannels, negotiate multilaterally and play for time (especially with the 2020 election looming). Trump favors leader-to-leader meetings, and he has little interest in slow and steady diplomacy.
  • Hook pointed to Trump's 3 meetings with North Korea's Kim Jong-un as a sign he's open to dialogue. But while sitting down with Trump was a major coup for Kim, Vaez notes, it'd be a "major liability" for any Iranian leader.

What to watch: For now, the default course is escalation.

  • "I believe the Iranians have come to the conclusion that noncompliance and pushback in the region has brought them more dividends than compliance and restraint,” Vaez says.
  • Meanwhile, Trump's advisers continue to insist that maximum pressure is working, and the task now is to further tighten the screws.

Go deeper

Iran reportedly seizes U.K. tanker in Strait of Hormuz

An oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Photo: Getty Images

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps said it seized a U.K. tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, the BBC reports.

The latest: Jeremy Hunt, the U.K. foreign secretary, said in a statement on Friday that Iran also seized a second vessel. The second tanker is Liberian-flagged but U.K. owned, according to the BBC. These are the latest in a series of escalatory events in the narrow waterway through which 20% of the world's oil supply flows.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Jul 19, 2019

Iran denies that U.S. destroyed its drone

The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. Photo: MCSN Craig Z. Rodarte/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

President Trump claimed a U.S. warship downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday, but Iranian officials denied Friday that the country had lost any drones, reports the AP.

Why it matters: When Iran downed a U.S. drone in the same area last month, it very nearly led to military conflict, per Axios' Dave Lawler, as the tension between the two countries is unfolding in a strait that carries a fifth of all global crude exports.

Go deeperArrowJul 19, 2019

Trump says U.S. "destroyed" Iranian drone near Strait of Hormuz

President Trump. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump told reporters Thursday that the USS Boxer, operating in the Strait of Hormuz, "destroyed" an Iranian drone that he said approached within 1,000 yards and ignored calls to stand down.

Why it matters: When Iran downed a U.S. drone near the Strait of Hormuz last month, it very nearly led to military conflict. After calling off an airstrike, Trump later tweeted that any "attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force," adding on Thursday that other nations should join the U.S. in condemning Iran's "attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce."

Go deeperArrowJul 18, 2019