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US-Iran tensions: escalation and de-escalation


By Guido Lanfranchi

The transition to the new year has been marked by rising tensions between the United States and Iran. For a few days, the Middle East has been on the brink of a new potential war, with the two countries adopting a strong rhetoric and conducting military operations against each other. Despite these tense days, Washington and Tehran seem now headed towards de-escalation – although the underlying tensions between them largely remain in place.

January 12th, 2020. New year, new decade, old tensions. The beginning of 2020 has been marked by a dangerous escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran, whose long-simmering rivalry has exploded in one of the most open confrontations since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Strain between the two countries had been forcefully re-emerging since May 2018, when the US administration headed by President Trump decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this multilateral agreement – signed in 2015 and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council – Iran had agreed to temporarily constrain its nuclear research program in exchange for sanctions relief from the international community. 

Arguing that the deal was not being successful in addressing the threats posed by Iran, the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and applied a so-called “maximum pressure campaign” on Tehran, imposing crippling sanctions on the country’s economy. Iran has since replied with what it calls a “maximum resistance campaign”, aimed at maintaining the country’s economy alive and upholding its foreign policy objectives. As the imposition of US sanctions eroded the JCPOA, Iran gradually started to withdraw from its own commitments under the deal. Moreover, a series of attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and on Saudi oil installations – which the US squarely blamed on Iran – further inflamed the tension.

In this tense environment, the spark was finally lit when on December 27th a US contractor got killed in a rocket attack against an Iraqi base in Kirkuk. The US blamed the attack on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia aligned with Iran, and it stroke back with an airstrike that reportedly killed 25 of the militia’s fighters. Two days later, militiamen and Iraqi protesters stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad and burned a reception building – eventually withdrawing after two days under their leaders’ orders. 

The new cycle of violence, however, was already triggered. In the morning of January 3rd, 2020, a US military drone stroke a car at Baghdad International Airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a key figure in Iran’s regional foreign policy, and the Kataib Hezbollah’s commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The strike generated uproar in Iraq, where people complained about the violation of their country’s sovereignty, as well as in Iran, where Maj. Gen. Soleimani enjoyed vast popularity. Having vowed to avenge the death of the military commander, Iran stroke back four days later, with a barrage of missiles hitting two military installations in Iraq hosting US troops. The strike reportedly caused no casualties – although the price of the escalation was paid by the 176 people who died when a Ukrainian civilian airline got accidentally shot down by Iranian missiles in Tehran on January 7th.

At that moment, tensions were at the highest point – with the whole world fearing that a broader conflict could suddenly erupt.

However, that was exactly the moment at which the de-escalation started. Iran’s missile attack reportedly produced no casualty among US and Iraqi servicemembers – intentionally so, according to some analysts – and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif made clear that no further attacks would follow in absence of new US military action. On the other side, US President Trump sought to downplay the damage caused by Iran’s attack, and ordered a retaliation based on sanctions – leaving aside any military option.

As of now, the confrontation between the US and Iran seems back on the “maximum pressure vs. maximum resistance” play. On January 10th, the US State and Treasury Departments announced a new round of sanctions targeting eight Iranian leaders and the country’s metal industry. The aim of this latest round of sanctions is “to hold Iranian regime officials responsible of the attacks against US personnel and interests”, as well as “depriving the regime of the revenue that it needs to conduct its violent and expansionist foreign policy” – said Mr. Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran. 

The shift away from military confrontation is a positive step. However, the simmering tensions between the US and Iran – not only over Tehran’s nuclear program, but also over the two countries’ rivalry in the region – largely remain in place. While this latest escalation has seemingly been dampened, policymakers on all sides should be very careful if they want to avoid new, dangerous escalations in the future.

About the author:

Guido Lanfranchi is a student and young professional in the field of international affairs. He has pursued his studies both at Leiden University and Sciences Po Paris, where he is currently enrolled. In parallel, he has been gaining professional experience through internships (first at the Council of the European Union, and currently at Clingendael Institute), as well as by working as reporter and associate editor for Diplomat Magazine The Netherlands. His research and work focus on the Middle East and Africa, and especially on conflict situations in these regions.

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