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The Trump Administration's Pressure On Iran Is Creeping Toward Conflict

Iran's downing of a U.S. drone is the latest step in a dangerous escalation.

President Donald Trump reportedly ordered and then called off a military attack against Iran after it shot down an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone on Thursday morning, in the most direct escalation yet of the ongoing crisis between Washington and Tehran.

Trump claimed on Friday morning that he’d canceled the strike 10 minutes before its launch out of concern that the likely death toll would not be proportionate to the loss of the unmanned drone. He also tweeted that the U.S. military is “ready to go” and that “Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”

The prospect of U.S. military conflict with the second largest country in the Middle East has alarmed leaders and defense officials worldwide — but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton may be getting just what they want. Both men have long attempted to push the U.S. toward a clash with Iran, and according to The New York Times, they advocated on Thursday for a military strike on Iran in response to the drone incident.

Relations between the U.S. and Iran have steadily deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the 2015 multilateral deal that agreed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic relief. The Trump administration instead implemented a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and aggressive military posturing. Rather than forcing Iran to capitulate to American demands, however, this strategy has increased the possibility of military conflict and led to Iran vowing to break its end of the nuclear pact.

The drone incident on Thursday was an extension of this pushback — one that analysts say policymakers should have seen coming.

“This was an entirely predictable consequence of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. “The maximum pressure strategy has rendered the Iranians more, not less, belligerent.”

Pompeo and Bolton have been at the forefront of this maximum pressure campaign. Although both deny the U.S. wants a military conflict with Iran, they have spent much of their careers campaigning for regime change in Tehran. Some analysts view the pressure campaign as an attempt to goad Iran into an attack like Thursday’s drone incident that would give the U.S. pretext to strike Iran militarily ― an intervention that figures such as Bolton have openly advocated for as a means of halting the country’s nuclear ambitions.

“This is an outcome that John Bolton desired so that it would provide enough justification for a military action against Iran that would bloody its nose or cut it down to size,” Vaez said.

Bolton and Pompeo have repeatedly warned of Iranian aggression and blamed Tehran for attacks on oil tankers this month, but they have provided little public evidence to fully back these claims. The exact circumstances that led to Iran’s downing of the U.S. drone are also under dispute. Iran claims the drone violated its airspace, while the U.S. says it was shot down over international waters.

Iran initially responded to the U.S. pulling out of the nuclear deal with a degree of restraint, hoping European nations that stuck to the deal would provide some economic relief. But as financial incentives to stay in the deal failed to materialize and U.S. pressure mounted, Iran has begun to lash out. This week the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the country would soon break its part of the 2015 nuclear deal that regulates how much uranium it can produce. A series of attacks on foreign oil tankers in the Gulf, which Iran denies responsibility for, has increased international concerns and affected global oil prices.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has continued to heap on pressure without any real offer of a diplomatic solution. In recent weeks, U.S. officials announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, repeatedly threatened retaliation if American interests are threatened, and ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East on top of the 1,500 it announced last month. Conservative lawmakers vowed a military response to threats from Iran and its loose network of proxy groups.

If the U.S. does decide to strike Iran, even in a limited capacity, there’s a risk the situation could spiral dangerously out of control into a larger conflict. Despite Bolton and Pompeo’s hawkishness, however, Trump had until this week appeared hesitant to become embroiled in a conflict with Iran ― even initially suggesting Thursday that Iran’s leaders did not intend to shoot down the U.S. drone. Trump approving strikes marks a notable shift in the president’s willingness to use military force against Iran, even if it appears he held back from ultimately carrying out the attack.

But the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is likely to produce more opportunities for conflict in the future. Increased military tensions or potentially a limited conflict is also in the interest of Iranian hard-liners, Vaez said, as they have long opposed negotiations with the U.S. and believe a clash would allow them to sideline their more moderate opponents in Iran’s parliamentary elections in early 2020.

“This is a crisis entirely manufactured by the Trump administration, because a few months ago Iran was in full compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal,” Vaez said. “Now it’s on the verge of violating that agreement.”

This article has been updated with the news that Trump approved military strikes on Iran, and with information about Trump’s tweets on Friday.

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