There is a danger that Iran’s attack on a U.S. surveillance drone could turn America’s strategy of deterrence into a full-blown conflict. But the U.S. has several options short of a full war to respond to this latest provocation.
And President Donald Trump, who downplayed Iran’s non-lethal attack last week on two oil tankers near Oman, also downplayed the drone incident. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” he said Wednesday. “It could have been somebody who was loose and stupid.”
The commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, has said the drone was hovering in international waters over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claims it was flying over Iranian territory. Meanwhile, in neighboring Iraq there has been a spate of rocket attacks on U.S. linked facilities.
These escalations are precisely the kind of aggression America’s recent new military posture in the region is meant to deter. At the same time, these attacks have stopped short of shedding American blood.
That’s significant. While the Trump administration has said publicly that it will take steps to defend U.S. interests, privately it has told Iran’s leaders through emissaries, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that if Iran’s attacks kill an American, there will be a response in kind. That is the scenario U.S. war planners are currently focused on.
It’s not unrealistic; one U.S. national security official told me that Iran has numerous options against U.S. citizens throughout the Middle East and abroad. It could launch more precise rocket and missile attacks at U.S. consulates and embassies in Iraq, direct assaults on U.S. naval vessels or coordinate terror attacks through proxies. But the U.S. is not without options of its own. “It will be bad for us,” this source said, “but it will be bad for them too.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force, it should be noted, are spread out throughout the Middle East. Not only are senior officers stationed in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, but there are Iranian military outposts in these countries as well. Since 2017, the U.S. intelligence community has prioritized the mapping of these Iranian forces in the Middle East. Options currently under consideration include strikes on those outposts timed not to result in casualties. A more serious option under consideration: direct lethal strikes on Iranian commanders stationed outside of Iran. As I wrote earlier this week, another kinetic option is strikes on Iranian naval facilities.
And the list of U.S. options is not limited to traditional warfare. Currently, the U.S. limits its cyberoperations to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, according to U.S. officials. If Iran continues to escalate, the U.S. could attack Iranian military computer networks.
Trump and other senior officials have said there is no eagerness to escalate the conflict with Iran. The strategy now is to “restore deterrence,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it last weekend. Based on his public comments, Trump appears to be hoping that can be done without any loss of Iranian life. The question now is whether Iran’s regime feels the same way.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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