Middle East Analysis

Iran: Security Crisis

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo by Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) 

Iran has described the United States’ decision to impose new sanctions on its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other top officials as “idiotic” and claimed the move had permanently ended diplomacy between Tehran and Washington.

The US increased its economic pressure on Iran following the shooting down of an unmanned American drone, which the US claimed was over international waters, but the Iran say was in Iranian airspace. Washington will also impose sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with the US, the European Union and other major states and has led much Iranian diplomacy since then.

On Iranian television, President Hassan Rouhani called the new round of sanctions “outrageous and idiotic”. He addressed the administration of President Donald Trump: “You sanction the foreign minister simultaneously with a request for talks?” and claimed that the White House is “afflicted by mental retardation.”

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said in a tweet: “Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security.”


The new American sanctions mark an escalation in tensions that will cause anxiety across the globe. Iran has the potential to close the Strait of Hormuz, vital for global trade and the transportation of oil. Any interruption of global oil flow would hit China and the US particularly hard.

President Trump described his new sanctions as “hard-hitting” and has reportedly complemented punitive economic moves with cyber attacks against Iran. The new wave of American non-military aggression came after President Trump dramatically called off military strikes against Iran, which he claimed would have killed 150 civilians. In a contradictory diplomatic context, Trump and members of his administration have said they would be open to holding negotiations with the leadership of the Islamic Republic, but Iran has responded by saying that talks are not possible while they are being sanctioned.

President holds executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran (Photo by Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, an Iranian news outlet reported that the country’s naval chief is warning it will shoot down more U.S. drones after the disputed downing of a surveillance drone last week that Iran says entered its airspace, while the U.S. claimed it was flying over international territory.


Presuming that Trump is sincere about his reasons for aborting the planned air strike, a split administration has been revealed, with Trump showing an inclination towards economic methods of confronting Iran, while key figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton pushing for war. In a television interview Trump explained: “I have two groups of people: I have doves, and I have hawks…John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn’t matter, because I want both sides.”

Trump has said that he is neither a hawk or dove, something that provides the region and the world with some hope that he may act rationally and move to restore stability in US-Iranian relations. This hope is bolstered by his u-turn on North Korea, which saw the president move from extremely threatening rhetoric, to being the enabler of an historic detente between the North and South sides of Korea.


Alleged Iranian attacks in recent months have included targeting shipping in the Gulf and an attack on a Saudi power station as well as the drone downing. In 2018, Iran allegedly fired rockets into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in 2018. Whether or not Iran was responsible for any of these attacks, it is clear that its capacity to strike in the region is the cause of great anxiety among key American allies: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. They would all like to see Tehran severely humbled.

But the wishes of allies and administration colleagues have so far not pushed Trump into a conventional military conflict with Iran. If he is to secure re-election in 2020, Trump does not need an unpopular and unpredictable war overseas. On the Iranian side, Tehran knows they cannot win a conventional war against US forces. It is willing to flex its muscles in response to any provocation, but it will be desperate to throw off the sanctions and so far views moderate escalation as the best route to strengthening its position.

Iran’s main asset is its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz and disrupt international trade. It will continue to show its willingness to use this tactic until its security is assured. Regionally, Iran is strong and can launch attacks from Yemen, Syria and in the Gulf, making it difficult to predict. It can also launch cyber attacks.

Security Risk

There is risk on both sides: Trump’s hawkish advisers might persuade the President to ratchet up the military aggression, while a miscalculation by the Iranian leadership might provoke the US into a direct military response. At the moment both sides need to avoid any provocation of the other and seek to reach a peaceful agreement that will boost the security of the whole world.