The Iranian destruction of an RQ-4A Global Hawk intelligence-gathering drone over the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday represents the continuation of a clear, consistent and calculated Iranian strategy of brinkmanship, which began in May.

Iran said it used a domestically produced surface-to-air missile system to bring down the advanced drone, scoring a valuable propaganda victory against the United States.

It appears as if Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have assessed that the Trump administration has a fairly high tolerance level to Iranian provocations, and this assessment is forming the basis for a string of Iranian attacks throughout the region.

This policy has seen the IRGC conduct sabotage attacks on international oil tankers docked at a United Arab Emirates’ port, launch mine attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and previously attempt to shoot down an American drone in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian policy also saw cruise-missile and explosive drone attacks against sensitive Saudi Arabian targets by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. “Anonymous” rocket attacks on Israel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad fit this pattern as well.

Iran is signaling to America and the region that it will not give in to economic pressure, and that the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic will only serve to destabilize the Middle East.

The location where the U.S. Navy RQ-4 was downed by a surface-to-air missile fired by Iran, according to U.S. military officials. Credit: Department of Defense.

In doing so, the Iranians have used high-risk brinkmanship to create a serious dilemma for the Trump administration. Washington must choose between containment, which could be interpreted by Iran as a green light for further attacks, or retaliation, which the Iranians appear confident enough to absorb.

Either way, Iran is not complying with Trump’s demands to reopen the 2015 nuclear deal, and its posture is designed to tell the international community that economic sanctions will fail as a means to influence its behavior.

This comes as the New York Times reported Thursday night that President Trump ordered an airstrike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of the drone, only to be pulled back from the launch shortly afterwards. The report quoted U.S. officials saying that the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone on its first flight from Palmdale, Calif., to Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: Bobbi Zapka, United States Air Force.

Given this, the White House will now have to decide whether to refrain from retaliating for the Iranian escalation—a decision that could cost it in terms of deterrence—or launch a pinpoint retaliation, which could develop into a wider conflict.

Either way, no diplomatic breakthrough is on the horizon, and the situation in the region continues to escalate.

‘Prepared for any scenario’

Israel, which is threatened by Iranian proxies from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, and which is engaged in a lengthy, defensive shadow war against Iranian forces in Syria, could with some ease find itself dragged into any Iranian-American flare-up.

In what appears to be a reflection of that fact, the Israeli cabinet reportedly held two sessions recently, according to the Ynet news site. Ministers have apparently been banned from giving interviews about the meetings, although one senior Israeli official told Ynet that “when there is tension with Iran, we certainly need to be concerned and to be prepared for any scenario.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu warned Israel’s enemies on Thursday that the IDF has “very big destructive power.” He spoke at the end of a large-scale IDF war exercise in a statement designed to energize Israel’s deterrent posture.

The IDF’s exercise, held in northern Israel and the Jordan Valley, simulated combat against the Iranian-backed terrorist army of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Troops practiced “urban-warfare capabilities while facing a hidden enemy who is entrenched underground and equipped with advanced weaponry,” the IDF said in a statement. It described it as the most extensive war drill since a previous exercise in 2017, adding that the exercise included “newly developed IDF capabilities,” without detailing what these were.

At the same time, the Israeli Air Force held its annual exercise, involving hundreds of aircraft from IAF squadrons. These were joined by helicopters and transport planes, which flew through the day and night, simulating war missions.

“The exercise, which simulated multi-front warfare, aimed to improve the IAF’s readiness in simultaneously facing combat scenarios in several arenas,” the IDF said.

The Israeli Navy joined in as well, with missile ships, submarines and coastal security vessels practicing scenarios in the northern region.

“This exercise continued to improve the IDF’s preparedness for war,” said the Commanding Officer of the Ground Forces National Training Center, Brig. Gen. Nadav Lotan.

After all, little boosts Israeli deterrence more effectively than such a display of war readiness.