Iran Conflict Could 'Spiral Out of Control' As Trump White House Plots Response to Drone Shooting

The destruction of an American drone above the Straits of Hormuz is the latest escalation in the U.S.-Iranian standoff, which has raised fears of a new and costly war in the Middle East.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Thursday the drone was shot down near the Kouhmobarak district north of the Strait of Hormuz, though the U.S. has said the aircraft was in international airspace when targeted. The Pentagon has now clarified that the UAV was a RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone. It was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile.

The shoot down was preceded by several bombings of commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and rocket attacks on U.S.-linked facilities in Iraq by suspected Iranian proxies. U.S. officials have blamed Iran, citing the incidents as evidence that Tehran is an aggressive and terrorist power that must be confronted by the international community.

Thursday's incident is arguably the most serious yet. It is certainly the most direct challenge to U.S. forces in the region since President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal—in May 2018.

Captain Bill Urban, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, confirmed Thursday that the Global Hawk was shot down by an Iranian missile at approximately 11:35 p.m. GMT Wednesday. "Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false," Urban said in a statement. "This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace."

Both the U.S. and Iran have said they do not want a war. Indeed, Trump has downplayed the seriousness of suspected Iranian attacks in public and reportedly favors a diplomatic solution, though senior aides like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been more hawkish.

Thus far, both sides have been relatively restrained. Suspected Iranian attacks have been non-fatal and localized, while American responses have been limited to aggressive rhetoric and limited troop deployments to the region. But, as the Chinese foreign minister warned this week, just one miscalculation could easily give way to chaos.

Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the British Chatham House think tank, said Washington and Tehran are using "a number of small-scale escalations" to convey diplomatic messages. "Neither of them—so far at least—seems to want to cross that line that would lead to a full confrontation," she told Newsweek.

"Despite the recent series of escalations that we have seen, we are not yet at the brink of war between the United States and Iran," Khatib added.

The current standoff has been more characterized by posturing than real aggression. Khatib compared the crisis to the start of a cock fight, with "two resting birds ruffling their feathers and displaying their vicious potential to the other, rather than an actual battle."

Both sides see this as a way to strengthen their hand in potential future negotiations. "They both want to start in a position of strength vis-a-vis the other," Khatib explained.

But such high stakes diplomacy carries risks. "There is always the risk that a measured action might go out of hand, might spiral out of control—accidents can happen," Khatib warned. "And if such things were to occur then of course this might drag both sides into hot conflict."

Nonetheless, Khatib added, "I highly doubt that we're going to see any U.S. action against Iran itself. What is more likely is that we're going to see heightened activity between U.S. and Iranian allies and proxies in places like the Gulf, or even in Syria."

Alexander Sehmer of the security and geopolitical consultancy Falanx Assynt, agrees. He told Newsweek it is "unlikely" that the U.S. would "retaliate directly to the shooting down of the drone." However, the Trump administration may choose other avenues of attack.

The White House may explore "troop deployments or further sanctions on IRGC entities, but also by consolidating international support against Iran as a dangerous international actor," Sehmer explained.

"Washington is waiting for Iran to breach the limits on its uranium stockpiles imposed by the JCPOA— which it is due to do on 27 June—then it can call on the Europeans to abandon the nuclear deal, which commits them to support Iran economically, and further pressure Iran that way."

But until then, the Persian Gulf is a highly dangerous area. "There is a greater risk to shipping as seen in the tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, there are potential fluctuations to the oil price around incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, and with the increasing military build-up there is an increased potential for accidental escalation," Sehmer warned.

Drone, Iran, U.S, military, war
Members from the 7th Reconnaissance Squadron prepare to launch an RQ-4 Global Hawk October 24, 2018, at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan