U.S. and Iran's Competing Claims: Big Questions About Recent Events in Middle East

The United States and Iran portrayed conflicting narratives of their mutual tensions, which have mounted to the brink of military action, and often the truth remained shrouded in the fog of warmongering on both sides.

The two nations have a four-decade history of tensions, beginning with the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted a West-backed monarchy and replaced it with a government led by Shiite Muslim clerics. Washington and Tehran have had some close calls over the years, but President Donald Trump's aborted call to attack Iranian military sites in response to the downing of an RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone may be among the gravest points in this longstanding feud.

This current spiral began with Trump's exit from a 2015 nuclear deal — signed by President Barack Obama and leaders of multiple European and Asian nations — that eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country severely curbing its nuclear program. In May 2018, America broke from that agreement, bringing on intense sanctions that ultimately led to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claiming in April that White House National Security Adviser John Bolton and the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were conspiring for war. Around this same time, Bolton began to inform the administration of alleged Iranian threats against U.S. interests in the region.

Iran continued to resist the Trump administration's threats, though it remained compliant with the 2015 deal. In May, however, Tehran announced it would begin rolling back its own commitments to that agreement as the U.S. began deploying additional military assets, and then a series of incidents brought the situation to a head.

us iran gulf mine blast attack
In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, the aluminum and green composite material is left behind following removal of an unexploded limpet mine apparently used in an attack on the starboard side of motor vesse Kokuka Courageous is seen on June 14 in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. military claimed that Iran possessed similar explosives, linking them to the blast, though the Islamic Republic has denied any involvement. U.S. Department of Defense

On May 12, four vessels—two Saudi-registered oil tankers, a Norwegian-registered oil tanker and an Emirati-registered bunkering ship—were rocked by explosions near the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman, miles from the world's most crucial oil chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz. Last week, two more oil tankers—one Japanese and the other Norwegian—suffered a similar fate.

The U.S. has blamed both incidents on Iran and produced footage and photos purporting to show Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers targeted in the second attack. Iran has denied this and suggested the U.S. may have been behind the incidents in an attempt to stir unrest as the Japanese Prime Minister made a historic visit to Tehran.

The naval forces of both countries responded to the blasts and appeared to claim to have come to rescue of sailors on both ships, but later reports suggested that it was actually two Dutch and South Korean vessels that saved the mariners of the two damaged ships before they were later turned over to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge and the Revolutionary Guards search-and-rescue vessel Naji 10, respectively.

U.S. officials speaking to Fox News and CBS News then suggested that the 23 sailors⁠—11 Russians, 11 Filipinos and one Georgian⁠—transferred to the Iranian port of Jask had been detained by Iranian authorities. All of the mariners were sent to Dubai two days later, however, and diplomats from Russia and the Philippines thanked Iran for its part in the rescue.

The other major points of contention between the U.S. and Iran involve the recent downing of the RQ-4A drone and its flight path. Iran claimed the state-of-the-art, high-flying drone had breached Iranian territory, while the Pentagon has argued that the unmanned aerial vehicle operated entirely within international airspace.

us iran drone shoot down map
A map released June 20 by the Pentagon purports to show the flight path of the RQ-4A surveillance drone shot down by Iran's Revolutionary Guards while flying over the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz. The map's legend incorrectly refers to the alleged flight path of the unmanned aerial vehicle as "Location of UAV Shoot-down." U.S. Department of Defense

U.S. Central Command and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif each subsequently released Google Maps screenshots with pins of the exact locations of where the incident took place, both backing up their respective narratives and the latter complete with a hand-drawn rendition. The Pentagon later produced a more comprehensive version of the map, complete with international boundaries and the drone's alleged flight path, though it was incorrectly titled as the spot where the UAV was downed.

Zarif has vowed to take this dispute to the United Nations, which has already called for an independent investigation into the tanker attacks, though the Trump administration has not signaled any interest in doing so for either case.

There also may be some conflict as to how Iran brought down the RQ-4A. Iran claimed to have destroyed the advanced drone using its domestically produced 3rd Khordad transporter erector launcher and radar, a variant of the locally made Raad surface-to-air missile system. When speaking to a Pentagon official about Trump's designated targets ahead of the planned strike Thursday, the official told Newsweek that "the launch site" was among them. Asked what kind of armament this involved, he said SA-3, the NATO name for the S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air system.

This older Soviet weapon dates back to the early 1960s, but it has been demonstrated to be capable of taking out modern weaponry. In 1999, the Yugoslav Army managed to down the U.S.' top-of-the-line F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber with a local copy of the S-125 in an infamous incident pieced together at the time by Newsweek.