Iran’s recent aggression toward US forces in the Persian Gulf may be part of a strategy among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements to goad Trump into a rash decision on the nuclear deal that earns them a political payday.  

On August 8, Iran flew a drone within one hundred feet of a US fighter jet attempting to land aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The US F/A-18 was forced to change course to avoid the unarmed drone. This was the third incidence of unprofessional Iranian behavior toward US forces in the Gulf in as many weeks, following two buzzing incidents involving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Navy on July 25 and 29.

In light of Trump’s antagonistic view of Tehran and his outspoken criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, notably expressed days before the first buzzing, the three naval incidents raise questions as to why Iran is provoking the United States in the Gulf.

One possibility is that, given political dynamics in Iran and the United States, these incidents are part of a sustained effort by Iran’s hardliners to increase tensions with the Trump administration. These hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clerical supporters, the IRGC, and the judiciary, could see an opportunity to leverage Trump’s well-publicized aspirations for doing away with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran.

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Iran challenges US policy, this time in the maritime domain

It seems hard for the United States to catch a break in the Persian Gulf these days. As its Arab partners continue to bicker among themselves, Iran remains a source of tension from across the water. A week after US President Donald J. Trump reluctantly notified Congress of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and imposed new non-nuclear sanctions, a US Navy ship fired warning shots at a patrol boat operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Navy in the Persian Gulf.

The July 25 encounter is yet another reminder that the IRGC-Navy will continue to create dangerous, potentially escalatory situations with US craft in the Gulf. Understanding the nature of Iran’s military forces and the threat they pose highlights both the need for continuing diplomatic engagement and the limits of dialogue with Iranian officials.

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Qatar crisis creates a headache for the United States

Nearly two months in, the diplomatic crisis between the Arab Gulf states is growing ever more complicated. The July 16 Washington Post report that cites unnamed US intelligence officials as claiming that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) precipitated the diplomatic row with Qatar by hacking Qatari state-run news outlets and attributing false statements to the tiny emirate’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is, if true, troubling for several reasons.

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During US President Donald J. Trump’s upcoming trip to Riyadh, Gulf leaders will seek to portray themselves as capable partners for the United States in countering common threats, namely violent extremism and Iranian aggression, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

Throughout the summit, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will “want to make it clear that they have become more capable partners,” said Bilal Y. Saab, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He said they will try to communicate to Trump: “Rely on us more. Trust us more. We are happy to devote sufficient resources to common fights including counter-terrorism and countering Iran.”

“I think they will push that message more aggressively now, because this is what Trump wants to hear,” Saab added. Regarded as a “transactional” president and self-proclaimed dealmaker, Trump emphasized throughout his campaign that the fight against terrorism would top his foreign policy agenda. “He said during the campaign that he is looking for partners who are more willing to contribute, share the burden, and spend more money on defense,” said Saab, adding that US partners in the Gulf will seek to meet this need.

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