US-Iran tensions remain high as UAE calls for de-escalation

Washington launched a cyber-attack and is readying more sanctions as Iran warns US troops in the region

The sun setting behind the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), in the Arabian Sea. EPA
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UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash on Sunday called for de-escalation of Gulf tensions with Iran, saying that they could only be addressed through political dialogue, after reports emerged that the United States conducted a major cyberattack against Tehran last week.

His call came after six attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in the past month and the Iran-claimed shooting down of a US drone on Thursday in the Strait of Hormuz.

The attacks pushed US President Donald Trump to the brink of a military retaliation before he pulled out of planned strikes that he said would have killed at least 150 people. Instead, he ordered the cyber-attack to disable computer systems controlling rocket and missile launchers, according to US media reports, and was set to impose new sanctions on Tehran on Monday.

But despite the UAE’s calls for deescalation, there were no signs of a detente between the US and Iran on Sunday.

A US defence official speaking to The National on condition of anonymity said Washington remains "prepared and on alert to protect our forces and interests" in the region.

The official saw “a credible, coordinated and intentional Iranian threat” still in place despite Mr Trump not giving the final order for a strike. Following the attack and a new Iranian threat to increase uranium enrichment, the US is consulting and coordinating with regional allies on a set of ways to increase deterrence, the official said.

Boosting security of US bases in Iraq, and protecting shipping lanes and freedom of maritime navigation in the Gulf are two urgent priorities for Washington at the moment. India's Navy dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Oman, and the US is looking to others to do the same. Shrinking Iran's Revolutionary Guard's maritime operational room is one aspect the US is discussing with regional partners, and will be on the table at the G-20 summit, diplomatic sources told The National.

The US is also preparing more sanctions, as well as taking aviation and cyber precautions against potential Iranian attacks. Following American and Emirati airlines, Saudi Arabia’s airlines announced this weekend that they would shift the path of their international flights away from the Gulf of Oman.

Mr Trump reiterated on Sunday that he is not seeking war with Iran, while denying reports that he sent Tehran a message via Oman. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also denied the reports in a statement released on Saturday.

“I'm not looking for war and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you've never seen before. But I'm not looking to do that. But you can't have a nuclear weapon. You want to talk? Good. Otherwise you can have a bad economy for the next three years,” Mr Trump told NBC on Sunday.

But behind the scenes, the administration is still piling pressure on Iran. The Washington Post reported that Mr Trump approved on Thursday night "an offensive cyberstrike that disabled Iranian computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches."

The attack was launched “by personnel with US Cyber Command” and “were in the works for weeks, if not months,” it said.

Mr Pompeo announced on Sunday that he will travel to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for talks, and repeated his offer for negotiations with Iran to de-escalate tensions.

"We're prepared to negotiate with no preconditions. They know precisely where to find us," Mr Pompeo told reporters before boarding his plane. "I am confident that at the very moment they are ready to engage with us we will be able to begin these conversations."

Iran meanwhile went on the offensive, warning the US that any war would threaten American troops in the region. "If a conflict breaks out…no country would be able to manage its scope and timing," Major General Gholamali Rashid said, according to the semi-official news agency Fars.

"The American government must act responsibly to protect the lives of American troops by avoiding misconduct in the region."

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at US intelligence firm Stratfor, said the “regional tension remains high, even as Donald Trump has signalled more clearly than ever his interest in pressuring Iran to talks over military confrontation.”

"US forces are still poised to retaliate against Iranian provocations at any time, and that gives Mr Trump the flexibility to draw and redraw his red lines as he sees fit," Mr Bohl told The National.

But despite assurances that the US is not seeking a military confrontation with Iran, Mr Bohl argued that the “volatile and unpredictable negotiating strategy [of Trump] creates deep moments of uncertainty as to whether or not the two countries will go to war”.

The obstacle to negotiations in this case, he said, is the Iranians, “who don't trust Mr Trump, don't see a reason to reward his pullout from nuclear deal with new talks, and believe they may be able to both turn the diplomatic tables on him by painting him as the aggressor and outlast him past his term should he lose in the 2020 elections”.

Offering oil waivers to sanctions or pausing new ones could be another incentive to bring Iran to the table, he said.