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2019-07-30

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International Relations
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Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shake hands before a meeting at United Nations headquarters, in New York City on July 18, 2019.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that his country’s warship had destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz. The USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, brought down the drone reportedly after the latter came within its proximity despite multiple warnings.

The U.S. has since called for other countries to condemn this as an act of gross escalation in the region, an act that Washington sees as Tehran’s way of disrupting oil trading routes.

Earlier, in June, Iran had shot down a U.S. drone that allegedly entered its airspace, an exchange that led to a major escalation between the two adversaries, so much so that the American security establishment was on the verge of taking retaliatory military action against three Iranian targets. The crisis appeared ready to explode until Mr. Trump stepped in to call off the attack.

Iran has been Mr. Trump’s pet peeve for some time now. His remarks, ever since the campaign days, have regularly featured Iran and its alleged insidious tactics across the West Asian region. This preoccupation with Iran has been a constant feature throughout his presidency and resulted in a U.S pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, despite certifications from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Tehran was complying with the deal.

However, it must be noted here that Mr. Trump is as much a non-interventionist as his predecessor Barack Obama — and this despite the massive difference in their respective rhetorical positions. Mr. Trump has pulled out a substantial number of American troops from Afghanistan and has shied away from direct military intervention in Syria.

Ironically, this approach of ‘no new interventions’ has been possible despite the presence of policy hawks such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in the administration. Perhaps what the global security architecture is struggling to comprehend is that ‘Trumpian politics’ has a distinct style when it comes to foreign policy: escalate and then de-escalate with the aim of securing a deal, an approach consistent with Mr. Trump’s projected image of being the “ultimate dealmaker.”

However, with the 2020 U.S. elections around the corner, Mr. Trump is unlikely to let go of the Iranian issue because it is — as it was in 2016 — a source of much election campaign material. Back then, it was the JCPOA; this time, it will be Tehran’s alleged belligerence and sabotage on the high seas. Invariably, Mr. Trump’s election campaign team will be hoping to portray that it is only Mr. Trump, with his strongman image, who can effectively bring Iran to heel and thus secure the U.S.’s vital security concerns in the region.

On its part, the Iranian government appears to be waiting out the tensions, hoping that it can mend ways with the next administration. But has it reckoned with the fact that Mr. Trump’s approval ratings have been somewhat on the ascendant?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in his interaction with the press at the UN, hinted at engaging diplomatically with the U.S. to defuse tensions. He even went on to offer an additional protocol agreement, which would grant the IAEA further inspection rights that would not only be comprehensive but also even more intrusive than before.

Perhaps Tehran has come to grips with the reality that ‘waiting out’ and ‘strategic sabotage’ on the high seas alone will not work in the long term. However, its offer to defuse tensions has been met with scepticism in Washington, and this portends a continuation of hostilities as the search for a common ground goes on.

Ejaz Ahmed is a researcher with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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