The past two weeks have been dominated by an extraordinary amount of pressure due to the increased tensions within the US-Iran relationship, almost culminating in an attack against Iran by the US, which could be viewed, under international law, as an act of war.
On June 20, 2019, in the early morning hours, Iran shot a US-owned drone, the RQ-4A Global Hawk, just above the Strait of Hormuz, accusing the US of crossing a ‘red line,’ and conducting covert operations on Iranian land and sea. The United States Central Command, just a few hours after the attack, claimed that the drone was flying in international airspace and supported calls for military retaliation to be directed at Iranian radars and missile batteries, which was scheduled for the night of the same day. The attack was called off last minute by President Trump who stated, through a series of tweets, that the attack was ‘not proportionate’ to shooting down an unmanned drone and had the capacity to kill 150 people, at least. He followed up his decision by threatening increased sanctions on Iran, without elaborating further on the point.
The downing of the US drone followed an attack on two oil tankers that occurred on June 13, 2019. On this occasion the Norwegian–owned Front Altair, shipping naphta from the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan, and Japanese Kokuka Courageous, shipping methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, were attacked forty-five minutes apart from each other in international water in the Gulf of Oman, after passing the Strait of Hormuz, a geopolitically significant area because much of the world’s oil supply flows through it.
These episodes, which left no casualties, set into motion powerful forces within the Trump administration that have the apparent intention to wage war against Iran whilst lacking the support of provable hard evidence.
In fact, after the attack on the two oil tankers, on June 17, the Pentagon authorized the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East, an order that was verified by the release of images showing them bringing surveillance assets, missiles batteries and fighter jets described as ‘deterrence capabilities.’
The US response came in retaliation to the decision by Iran to breach a key element of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), when it announced it would produce and stock within ten days more low-enriched uranium than allowed by the deal. That threat became a reality on July 1st, when the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced that Iran had committed its first significant breach of its nuclear deal with world powers. International inspectors have, in fact, confirmed that Iran breached a limit on its uranium stockpile of a few kilograms of uranium. While the move is of modest quantity, this step could well lead to a bigger leap out of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The US attempt to build international consensus for an attack against Iran fueled its decision to enlarge its uranium enrichment limits, bringing with it higher chances that Iran could revive its program to develop atomic weapons. The sensitivity of this matter lies in the fact that the area of nuclear proliferation prevention is the central issue of the current US-Iran animosity. In this regard, in relation to the currently evolving unstable situation between the US and Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that this, in turn, could take the US, Iran and the international community as a whole to the brink of war.
It is despicable that much of what is going on is infused with lies and a provocative and aggressive rhetoric adopted as a strategy by the US, whose aim is to exacerbate an already unstable relationship and manufacture a reason to go to war, a tactic we have dramatically witnessed 16 years ago.
In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the incident concerning the explosion of part of the two oil tankers, the US put forward a narrative depicting Iranians as ‘evil-doers’ – George Bush’s favorite exploited expression in the run-up to the war against Iraq in 2003. In doing so, the administration released a grainy black-and-white video showing faceless Iranians acting suspiciously around the Kokuka Courageous, personnel who were believed by US analysts to be removing a limpet mine from the ship. These images were indeed used by the US administration to give ‘official proof of nefarious intent’ by Iran, and speculation over Iran’s responsibility in unison with the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, has defined these attacks as ‘a clear threat to international peace and security,’ harkening back to when US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, lied about evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq at the United Nations Security Council, and obtained the support the US needed to pave the way to war against it.
Another similarity with the US bellicose past that was introduced to sustain the race to war, was the historic parallel with the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in 1964 that were manipulated to justify Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.
Also reprehensible is that, on the European stage, strong support of the US video dossier came from the UK, alongside the unquestioned belief by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, of the proof of Iran’s responsibility for the incidents involving the oil tankers.
Some Western media, particularly in the US, provide an uncritical platform for the Trump administration, failing to question the basic premises of the US’s accusations, taking their statements at face value, looking for more evidence of Iranian involvement in the explosion of the oil tankers, thus normalizing the US demonizing narrative against Iran and magnifying unfounded accusations.
Predominantly, Iran’s decision to breach the 2015 deal was defined by the US administration as ‘nuclear blackmail’—incorrectly so, considering that Iran does not possess an atomic bomb and, therefore, cannot use one, a point that was not raised when this statement was issued. Also, there has been no questioning of what legal or constitutional basis the US has to retaliate through military strikes over the attack of Japanese and Norwegian ships.
Moreover, no context had been given of more than forty years of tensions between Iran and the US, with total absence from the discourse of why the US is legitimized to possess nuclear weapons while Iran is not. The current crisis represents another missed chance to add more pressure on the US and, eventually, delegitimize the narrative that justifies the possession of its nuclear arsenal, at home and abroad.
The same idea that opposing escalation, or questioning unsupported evidence, equates to supporting an evil, despotic theocracy is observable now as it was on the occasion of the 9/11 attacks and of the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. Very similarly to Colin Powell’s successful maneuver to manufacture a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein at the time of the Iraq war, quite remarkably, Michael Pompeo in 2019 has been willing to claim that Shia Islamist Iran is connected to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda. In doing so, he has been left unchallenged by the media in falsely portraying Iran as a threat to the United States.
Some positive aspects within this current scenario are nonetheless present and worthy to be pointed out. Some of the most critical media have questioned the provocative and aggressive rhetoric adopted by the Trump administration. It has also been highlighted that most of the European countries, alongside Russia, China, Turkey and most of the Gulf states, do not support Trump’s race to war. A recent survey by Reuters/Ipsos shows that 49% of the US public disapprove Trump’s handling of Iran; 53% see Iran as a serious threat but 60% amongst them do not support military strikes on Iranian military. This opposition to war is consistent with the opposition to the war in Iraq in 2003.
The US rhetorical move to accuse Iran of attacking the oil tankers with a mine also was not supported by the testimonies of the crew of the Kokucha, some of whom reported that the ship was hit by a ‘flying object,’ declarations that were reported by some media, fortunately.
The increase of tensions between the US and Iran has marked a further setback to the possibility of resorting to international cooperation while dealing with interstate disputes rather than through international confrontation. It also is emblematic of the predominant bellicose attitude and arrogance displayed by the US, in seeking to affirm itself as an unsurpassed world power, as well as by Iran, capable of raising support from the Gulf region, Gaza, and from the Israeli-Syria and Saudi-Yemeni border, and throwing a good portion of the Middle East into a devastating war with unimaginable consequences. What’s at stake at the moment, however, is not only the threat of war, but also the most compelling need to prevent another country on this planet from actualizing its nuclear ambitions and undermining once again the very existence of the world’s population.
Silvia De Michelis is a PhD researcher at the Division of Peace Studies and International Development at the University of Bradford in the UK. Her research project focuses on the role of media within the Responsibility to Protect framework, with particular regard to how the media discourse informs the understanding of ‘humanitarian interventions’.