President Trump surprised many in Washington and internationally when he abstained from responding militarily to Iranian attacks in international waters — but a more quiet American counterattack of cyber sabotage and targeted sanctions is underway, and the leadership in Tehran is incensed.
AMERICAN RESPONSE: CYBER ATTACKS AND SANCTIONS
The world briefly held its breath after the Iranian military shot down a U.S. drone during a period of high tension between Tehran and Washington. President Trump’s harsh rhetoric had stoked fears among many that the two nations were drifting towards open confrontation. But on June 21, the President announced that he had called off a military strike at the last minute after being informed by military briefers that as many as 150 Iranians would be killed in the attack. This account struck administration officials as implausible, as the President had been informed much earlier about the possible casualty count.
Later that day, clarity about President Trump’s intentions emerged with reports that the task of retaliating had been delegated to U.S. Cyber Command. The digital wing of the Department of Defense launched online attacks against multiple Iranian computer systems, including the Iranian intelligence group believed to have planned the attacks against oil tankers in recent weeks. Trump opted for a cyber offensive instead of a kinetic response because it was deemed to be less likely to trigger further escalation. Iran’s telecommunications minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi denied the cyber attack: “No successful attack has been carried out by them,” he claimed, “although they are making a lot of effort.”
The White House has augmented its cyber assault with a further intensification of the sanctions campaign. On June 24, the administration announced new sanctions impact Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, as well as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The effectiveness of the sanctions campaign in reducing Iranian oil exports was underscored this week in that reports indicate they tumbled further — to below 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) in June. It was a decline of almost 40 percent from the previous month, and nearly 90 percent lower than the 2.5 million bpd average of 2018 before Trump announced the American withdrawal from the JCPOA.
IRANIAN DENUNCIATIONS PROVOKE TRUMP’S IRE
Apparently stung by the American response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out on Tuesday. He opined that the White House suffered from a “mental handicap” and that “the Americans have become desperate and confused.” Speaking in a televised address, Rouhani railed against the sanctions campaign — “unusual measures,” he said — and “nonsense talk.”
The same day, Iran's Supreme National Security Council Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani threatened that Iran would begin “the second phase of diminishing JCPOA commitments” on July 7, in a step aimed at “the countries that mistook [Iran]’s patience for weakness and inaction.” Likewise, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, denounced the latest round of sanctions, calling it “another indication that America does not attach any respect to the international laws and the prevailing international opinion,” and demanding that the United States must stop "its economic warfare and terrorism against the Iranian people."
These statements did not sit well with President Trump, who swiftly responded over Twitter: “Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!”