The US-Iran tension

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Recently, the world has been witness to an ongoing chain reaction based (CRB) increased extended military clash between the US and Iran. This skirmish started with a rocket attack on 27th Dec 2019, on the Kaywan Air Base in the Kirkuk region of Iraq by suspected Iran backed Hezbollah militants (HM). The attack killed a US civilian contractor. In retaliation, on 29th Dec 2019, the US did airstrikes on HM’s centres of command and weapon depots in Syria and Iraq leading to 25 deaths.  

It further culminated in an attack by the HM on the US embassy based in the international zone of Baghdad knfown as the Green Zone on 31st Dec 2019. The US immediately responded by sending more military to the embassy and the Persian Gulf region. Besides, on 3rd Jan 2020, the US through a drone strike near the international airport of Baghdad, killed the second most authoritative Iranian, Major-General Q Soleimani including nine others which included a commander of HM.  

Reason: For the current escalation

The ongoing US-Iran military hostility is a direct intensified output of the 2019-2020 crisis in the Persian Gulf region between these two nations. It actually began on 8th May 2018 when the US withdrew from the ‘Iran nuclear deal’ (IND) also known as the ‘JCPOA agreement’ signed in July 2015, accusing Iran of distressing and destabilizing the US forces in the region and imposing sanctions (fourth since 1979) from Nov 2018 to stop Iran from supporting militants in the region, and from developing ballistic missiles.

Thereafter, the crisis started escalating, when first in May 2019, four merchant ships were damaged in the Persian Gulf through what the US called a sabotage attack by Iran. Then again in June 2019 two more merchant ships were damaged through limpet mines in the Persian Gulf. The US blamed Iran for these attacks and responded by increasing its military in the region.

Iran meanwhile destroyed a US drone aircraft after accusing it of spying and flying over its waters. The US responded with cyber assaults on Iran’s missile control mechanism and added new sanctions. The US also deployed the latest F-22s in the region.

Further, in continuation in July 2019, Iran successfully captured a UK oil tanker in the gulf in retaliation to UK earlier seizing an Iran oil tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar. Meanwhile, the US claimed having destroyed an Iran drone aircraft which was denied by Iran. All these lead to the creation of the multinational IMSC – a sentinel programme by the US in the gulf to safeguard oil tankers.

In a continued CRB retaliation, in Aug 2019, Iran captured an Iraqi oil tanker. It lead to UK and Israel joining this IMSC programme. In Sept 2019, per claimed by US, the missile and the drone attack on Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia originated from Iran. While Iran captured one more ship in the gulf and told the US and other western nations to leave the Persian Gulf. In retaliation, US officially launches the IMSC in Nov 2019 in Bahrain to safeguard oil supplies.

Developments: After the drone attack

Iran termed the drone killing of its leader Soleimani as murder. This act impulsively worsened the four decade old tension between the two countries. Iran vowed revenge with unforgiving retaliation while US announced more troops to the region as a precaution.

Further, Iran declared that it would no more honour the limitations of the IND and on 7th Jan 2020, Iran declared the US armed forces and the Pentagon as terrorists.  On 8th Jan 2020, Iran launched the ‘Operation Martyr Soleimani’ through a series of ballistic missiles strikes at US targets in Iraq claiming 80 US casualties which were dismissed by the US.

Meanwhile Iraq passed a resolution for complete US withdrawal from Iraq which was rejected by the US with a warning to freeze its deposits in US and brought in more sanctions on Iran. On 12th Jan 2020, HM called for a joint intensified military crusade against US while Iran and the US, both separately concluded to de-escalate the crisis.

Meanwhile, the market across the world reacted with 4% increase in oil prices and a fall in stock prices.

History: US-Iran relations

The crisis has its root in two events. First event happened in 1951. It started with the nationalisation of the British owned oil company in Iran by the then left wing prime minister M Mossadegh. In retaliation UK and the US through ‘Operation Ajax’ overthrew this government in 1953 with a monarch, the Shah. This monarch over time turned into a dictator to rule but had the support of the US.

This lead to the birth of anti-American ideology being used by hardliners students. They in 1979 overthrew the monarch with a new theocratic government and took 52 Americans as hostage for 444 days (the second event) after seizing the US embassy in Iran. US immediately brought in economic trade sanctions and froze all of Iran assets in US. These were lifted only after the release of the hostages in 1981.

This led to the birth of conflicting policies with locked in bitterness. It also led to the division of the middle-east between these two nations as allies and starting of proxy wars like the 1980 Iraq-Iran war, or the 1983 attack of Hezbollah on US targets in Lebanon. In 1988, the conflict escalated with direct confrontation between US-Iran through the tanker war in the Persian Gulf and a second economic sanctions were imposed by the US which were further expanded in 1995.

The proxy activities by Iran escalated with the fall of Saddam. Iran assumed itself to be next target on the list and escalated the militant attacks on US in Iraq. These were headed by Q Soleimani leading to several hundred deaths of US soldiers as well as expanding its influence on Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

Next is the IND. During the reign of the Shahs in early 1960s, US helped Iran with nuclear reactors for civil peaceful use including training and assistance. However, in 2002, Iran started using it to develop a bomb, US followed it with the third economic sanctions in 2006 which were lifted only after the IND was signed.

Implication: For India

Any war in the gulf region will put to danger the lives of eight million Indians who live in this region. It will also destroy their livelihoods leading to reduced remittances which are a source of foreign exchange. The war will also increase the import cost of oil prices leading to more use of foreign exchange, increase of domestic price of oil leading to inflation of commodities and food prices. Currently, Indian economy is in a slowdown mode. This will have an upsetting effect on macroeconomic policies.


The four decade confrontation through economic sanctions and costly proxy war has destroyed the economy of Iran. Its currency has collapsed. It now has huge budget deficits. Business are controlled by State agencies leading to high corruption. Iran also had to reduce the oil price but overall oil prices increased in the international market.

The effect has been the paucity of medicines, shortage of food, lost income opportunities. The US also has become tired of these proxy wars and there are now more internal opposition to such escalation of wars.  Currently the situation is under control but this confrontation of political policies can lead to unpredictable dramatic escalation of hostilities. A full scale war will lead to millions of deaths.

Author: Shaily Baag from National Law University, Odisha.

Editor: Tamanna Gupta from RGNUL, Patiala.