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The weekend in the risky US-Iran standoff, explained

Trump’s new sanctions on Iran cap off intense four days.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order imposing new sanctions on Iran on June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump signs an executive order imposing new sanctions on Iran on June 24, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the past four days, the United States launched a cyberattack on Iran, President Donald Trump followed through on his threat to place even more sanctions on Tehran, European nations pushed to end mounting tensions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out to build a global coalition to counter Tehran, and the US announced plans to create a new military protection force to safeguard shipping in vital waterways in the Middle East.

Put together, these events show that tensions between the US and Iran aren’t decreasing. If anything, it’s clear that the weeks-long US-Iran standoff will likely continue well into the future.

Multiple outlets reported over the weekend that the US Cyber Command launched an attack Thursday night against several Iranian targets, including computers that control missiles and others used by an Iranian intelligence group.

That news came as a surprise, especially since Trump called off a missile strike on Iran that same evening. It now appears that the US did retaliate after Iran downed an American military drone last week, meaning both countries are locked in a simmering conflict — at least for the time being.

Trump ratcheted up the pressure on Saturday by saying he would increase sanctions on Iran. He did so two days later, saying the new measures would keep Iranian leaders from accessing some financial instruments.

The goal of the penalties, he said, is to compel Iran to give up the entirety of its nuclear ambitions (although Tehran has never officially said it seeks a nuclear weapon). “We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran,” he said in the Oval Office on Monday. “Never can Iran have a nuclear weapon.”

On Sunday, shortly before flying to meet with Middle Eastern allies, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration aims to build a “global coalition” to curb Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs and weaken its support of terrorism around the world.

And on Monday, Brian Hook, the US special envoy for Iran, said the Trump administration is planning to build a tanker protection force to keep shipping vessels safe. Since May, six oil tankers have been damaged in suspected attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman; the US blames Iran for those attacks, a charge Tehran denies.

If you missed any of this because you wanted to enjoy your weekend and not think about the prospects for a US-Iran war, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

The US attacked Iran — with cyber weapons

Iran shot down a US military surveillance drone last Thursday morning, killing no one but damaging a very expensive piece of equipment. The US planned to respond that night with missile strikes, but Trump opted against it because he said that would’ve been too harsh.

“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,” Trump tweeted on Friday morning. “[N]ot proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry.”

But it turns out the US did respond to Iran’s drone attack after all.

On Friday, Yahoo News reported that the US military used unknown digital weapons to disrupt the computers of an Iranian spy group the Trump administration blames for supporting strikes on oil tankers. Subsequent reports added further details, including that the US also targeted computers involved in Iran’s missile program.

A former US defense official familiar with cyber plans for Iran told me the digital strikes were likely meant to coincide with the planned missile strikes. Temporarily disabling Iran’s defenses makes it safer for US warplanes and weapons to hit their targets. Trump tweeted that he called off the missile attack about 10 minutes before it happened, meaning the cyber weapons already would have been deployed to provide “extra layers of protection” by that point.

No one died from last week’s cyber assault, but it’s likely the strike was extremely damaging to some of Iran’s military systems. Iran, however, says the cyber strike failed. “They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, tweeted Saturday.

Still, it’s clear that a digital strike is a lot less aggressive than dropping bombs on Iran. If Trump sought a proportional response, damaging some intelligence and military computers is certainly more commensurate with the downing of an unmanned drone than bombing physical targets.

The question now is how Iran reacts to the attack. Does it see it as a major affront requiring a forceful response, perhaps digital assaults of its own on US commercial targets? Or does it view it as a warning that the US could inflict tons more damage to digital and physical equipment if Iran continues to act aggressively?

Surely Trump, who says he doesn’t want a war with Iran, hopes the latter. But Trump isn’t standing idly by in the meantime — he’s putting even more pressure on Iran.

Trump imposes new sanctions on Iran

In comments to reporters and a tweet on Saturday, Trump said he planned to impose even more sanctions on Iran.

And on Monday morning, he signed an executive order to keep senior Iranian leaders — including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — from accessing financial instruments. It’s unclear, though, what exactly those instruments are and how the sanctions will block the Iranian officials from using them. But Trump vowed that the new penalties would be “major,” and targeting Iran’s top official is certainly that.

The move is the latest step in Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that has plunged the country’s economy into a deep recession.

After the president withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year, he reimposed previously lifted sanctions on the country that target areas like banking and steel. Perhaps the most crushing of the more than 1,000 penalties, though, are the ones on Iran’s oil sector. The US aims to bring Tehran’s oil exports — the lifeblood of the country’s economy — down to zero.

European nations that are trying to save the nuclear deal — France, the UK, and Germany — have looked for ways to do business with Iran despite the sanctions. But they haven’t found a method agreeable to Tehran yet, leading the Islamic Republic to signal it soon may no longer abide by the nuclear accord.

Trump says the financial pressure is meant to compel the country to give up all elements of its nuclear program. If Tehran strikes a deal with Washington along those lines, then he may lift the sanctions.

But it’s possible the Trump administration’s new measures will only worsen the US-Iran standoff, experts say, especially since the supreme leader is specifically affected. Iran’s aggressive actions, including downing the drone, are meant to increase pressure on Washington to provide sanctions relief. Iran may therefore think of something even bolder and riskier to do to get its message across after new sanctions are imposed.

Which means if you think the situation is dangerous now, just watch what Iran might do following new US-imposed sanctions.

European countries work to end the US-Iran standoff

European nations are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They want the Iran nuclear deal to continue, but US policy and Iran’s aggressive actions are making that quite difficult.

That hasn’t stopped top European leaders from trying to calm tensions, though.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to media at the end of an EU Prime Minister and Chief of State Summit on June 21, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to media at the end of an EU Prime Minister and Chief of State Summit on June 21, 2019, in Brussels, Belgium.
Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a gathering of Protestant churches in the country on Saturday, issued an impassioned call to the international community to help find a political solution to the US-Iran crisis.

“I say that [a political solution] should not just be a hope, but that it should be worked toward with the utmost seriousness,” Merkel said. She also pledged German resources to this end, saying, “We can also help to make what we want — a political, diplomatic solution — possible.”

The UK also took steps to advance peace, sending Middle East Minister Andrew Murrison to Iran on Sunday. He told his counterpart that the UK believes Tehran “almost certainly bears responsibility for the attacks” and that they needed to stop.

“This visit has provided an important opportunity for open, frank, and constructive engagement with the Iranian government,” Murrison told reporters after the gathering. The British official’s visit came less than a week after France sent a top diplomatic adviser to Iran as part of European efforts to reduce tensions in the region.

However, it’s unlikely Merkel’s comments and British diplomacy will end the US-Iran standoff. While Europe can play an important part in lowering tensions, the ultimate decisions will be made in Washington and Tehran.

The US wants to build a global coalition to combat Iran

Pompeo took a surprise trip to the Middle East this week to meet with allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss the Iran crisis. More shocking than his trip, though, was his comment about the reason for the visit.

“We’ll be talking with them about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned and how we can build out a global coalition, a coalition not only throughout the Gulf states but in Asia and in Europe that understands this challenge and that is prepared to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” the secretary told reporters on Sunday before traveling.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the press about the 2018 International Religious Freedom Annual Report at the State Department on June 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. 
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the press about the 2018 International Religious Freedom Annual Report at the State Department on June 21, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

It’s quite a jarring statement. Trump withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 — a deal that represented a concrete effort by a global coalition to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. But Pompeo, who has already laid out 12 ways he wants Iran’s foreign policy to change, says this new coalition will focus on the entirety of the Islamic Republic’s aggressive behavior.

Supporters of Trump’s strategy say the Iran nuclear deal was too narrow because it only focused on, well, the nuclear aspect. It didn’t touch on Iran’s growing missile program or its support for proxy groups in the Middle East that have killed hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis, among others. That’s why they applaud what Trump is doing now: putting crippling sanctions on Iran while trying to build a global movement to increase diplomatic pressure on the country.

It’s unclear if other nations have the appetite to push back against Iran in a years-long campaign, or how Tehran might respond to such sustained ostracism. The Trump administration, though, seems intent on finding out.

The US wants a global tanker protection force

The US helped orchestrate a 1953 coup in Iran in part to maintain access to the Persian Gulf’s immense oil reserves, and assuring that the US and other countries continue to have that kind of access has remained a key priority for all presidents since.

Which helps explain why the US and other nations reacted so strongly to the bombings of six oil tankers since May in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, both vital waterways through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil travels.

The US blames Iran for all the attacks and has released video and pictures to back up that claim; Tehran, meanwhile, maintains it had nothing to do with them. But Iran patrols that area aggressively and has attacked tankers in the past with mines, making it the top suspect for the bombings.

To ensure no other strikes occur, the US announced that it hopes to create a tanker protection force to ensure shipping vessels can pass through that area unimpeded.

“There have been too many attacks. We could have had an environmental disaster and extensive loss of life due to reckless Iranian provocations,” Hook, the top US Iran envoy, told reporters on Monday. Having countries work together in the area to safeguard tankers coming through could both safeguard international trade and keep Iran from escalating tensions.

It’s unclear what resources, if any, other nations might contribute to such a tanker protection force. Still, it’s a potentially creative way to push back on Iran and show that the world is behind keeping that area safe.