© Fars News Agency / WANA via ReutersA boat of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard sails close to Stena Impero, the British-flagged tanker recently seized by Iran
It was an explosion at an Iran-aligned Shiite militia base in an obscure corner of Iraq-at worst, it could have had global implications, by plunging the United States and Iran into a dangerous new round of escalation.
The speculation on social media about the incident last week was rife: Perhaps it was a U.S. or Israeli air strike against Iranian weapons or proxies. On the heels of the U.S. downing of an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, either seemed possible, especially since Iraq's militia already had the potential to become the next flashpoint in the U.S.-Iran crisis. The fevered conjecture even led the U.S. to issue a statement, saying Washington was not involved in the incident.
The reports that emerged in the following hours and days suggested more mundane scenarios. The Iraqi military said the base had been hit by a grenade dropped from a drone-a relatively unsophisticated style of attack that ISIS often deploys and that anyone with a consumer drone and some mechanical skill could carry out. Then, on Monday, an Iraqi media report said the militia had launched its own investigation into the explosion and determined it was caused by a fire.
The confusion over the explosion-and the fact that such an obscure event came into such intense focus in the first place-underlines the unease now gripping the region. A tangled web of actors and incidents, from Iranian proxies in Iraq to the seizure of oil tankers and destruction of military drones in the Persian Gulf, now holds the potential for the next escalation. It might even be sparked by an ISIS militant flying a drone overnight, the artificial intelligence running a drone-jamming system aboard a U.S. warship, or a random fire.
Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked as a U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, told me that Iran-linked militia members in the country are indeed "fearful of U.S. air strikes inside Iraq against their bases," which would be an unprecedented escalation. (U.S. strikes in Iraq exclusively target ISIS). At the same time, bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq have occasionally been subject to murky rocket and mortar attacks in which the perpetrators haven't been clearly identified. "These types of attacks can be attributed to whatever group the Iraqi government says committed the attack," Pregent said.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of very real Iranian escalations. Iranian forces shot down a U.S. drone in June, nearly provoking a U.S. response that Trump reportedly cancelled at the last minute. Iran then used its own drone to harass the USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting the U.S. to bring down the drone. Iran later broadcast footage of the Boxer, filmed either by that drone or another one, in an apparent taunt. (Keeping up its aggressive posture, Iran also claimed to have captured more than a dozen CIA spies and sentenced some to death, though Trump was quick to deny this.) Iran also seized a UAE-based tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday and a British-flagged tanker on Friday.
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Those incidents remind Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, of the so-called Tanker Wars of the 1980s, in which, during the disastrous Iran-Iraq War, both sides began targeting the shipping interests of their rival and its allies, eventually drawing Gulf countries and then the U.S. Navy into the conflict. "There is historical precedent for Iranian brinkmanship," he told me. "In the first Tanker Wars in the late '80s, the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy] consistently escalated, even in the face of U.S.-led international convoys, up to the point where they went after the naval escorts."
Iran only backed down, Schneider added, after the U.S. military "heavily retaliated with Operation Praying Mantis," sinking five Iranian vessels and killing more than 50 Iranians. (America's downing of the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655 also factored into Iran's decision to de-escalate, he noted.)
The Iranian seizure of the U.K. vessel last week came after Britain's seizure of an Iranian oil tanker near the Strait of Gibraltar earlier this month. That vessel, U.K. authorities said, was carrying crude to Syria in violation of EU sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime. Yet Iranian leadership, Schneider told me, appears to view the U.K. seizure "not as enforcement of EU sanctions but as a British accession to the Trump administration's 'maximum pressure' campaign."
Iran's reaction points to a key development that might be easy to miss amid the day-to-day escalations: Washington's campaign of maximum pressure appears to be succeeding in driving Iran's leadership to act like the international deviants the Trump administration has long made them out to be. Ever since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took his post in April 2018, he has insisted that the world's problems with Iran extend beyond the nuclear issue to a wide range of global troublemaking. After Trump pulled out from the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran, America's European allies remained signatories-and European leaders tended to paint Iran as the victim of the Trump administration's increasing confrontationalism. (To be sure, European leaders, like the Obama administration, recognized the problems of Iran's support for proxy groups and missile development, but argued that they could be addressed outside the nuclear deal.) Yet now Iran is fulfilling the prophecy of itself as a villain on the world stage, planning attacks against regime opponents in Europe and harassing international vessels in clear violation of international law. After seizing the British tanker, Iran released footage of armed soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter to board it, along with a video of an Iranian flag flying over the ship.
Iran's calculation may be that such hostilities can create more daylight between the U.S. and its allies, but its aggression may end up having the opposite effect-U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, an advocate of the nuclear deal, has condemned Iran's seizure of the tanker and said yesterday that he would create a joint European maritime mission to address continued Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf. If Iran continues on that path, vows from Democratic presidential candidates to reenter the nuclear deal if elected in 2020 may be ever more unlikely. "Iran is not making it easier for European states to invest political capital in trying to uphold the [nuclear deal] and legitimate trade with Tehran," Schneider told me.
The issue, as ever with the Trump administration's maximum-pressure campaign, is where it will lead. Now that the U.S. looks again like the grown-up in the room vis-à-vis Iran, will it use its new political capital to strengthen its hand and bring about concessions? Or will the hard-liners in Trump's orbit see the end game as something else-perhaps getting Iran to one day take the kind of escalation that could justify a U.S. military strike and pull America down the road into an open-ended conflict?
Writing in The Guardian this weekend, Alan West, a retired admiral of Britain's Royal Navy, put these concerns starkly: "Some powerful groups in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States want war and think a precision strike against key parts of Iran's military capability would lead to regime change," he wrote. "They are wrong. It would lead to an open-ended war with catastrophic consequences across the region and the globe."
The trick for the Trump administration might be to have enough sense to know when it's winning.