Iran's Downing of a US Drone Represents Clear Escalation, but War Remains Unlikely

Iran's Downing of a US Drone Represents Clear Escalation, but War Remains Unlikely

By Edward Carney

On Thursday, it was confirmed that the Islamic Republic of Iran had shot down an American drone, as the Pentagon released footage showing the smoke trail left by the unmanned aircraft as it descended into the waters near the Persian Gulf. The existence of that footage underlines further statements by US officials regarding the incident, in which they claimed to have evidence that would help to resolve the dispute between the two countries over the circumstances leading up to the attack.

In contrast to previous attacks not targeting American military assets or personnel, the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps quickly accepted responsibility for the drone shoot-down but claimed that it was justified because the surveillance craft was operating over Iranian territorial waters. The US military denied this on Wednesday evening even before confirming that the drone had been downed, and additional details were revealed the following morning about the two governments’ contrasting claims.

According to the US, the drone was 21 miles off the Iranian coast at the time that it was struck by a surface-to-air missile belonging to the IRGC. As NBC News explained in reporting on the incident, the internationally-recognized boundary for a nation’s sovereign airspace is just 12 miles away from any shoreline facing an international waterway like the Persian Gulf.

As of the time of that report, none of the known details about the attack contradicted the American claims. While certain Iranian weapons would not have been able to reach a target so far away from the country’s shore, the missile used in this attack was reportedly quite sophisticatedf, with a range of approximately 30 miles. And although the target reportedly carried a price tag of 123 million dollars, it also lacked countermeasures that might have helped it to avoid being shot down by a radar-guided missile, even over such a long distance.

CBS News cited its national security correspondent as saying that the Iranians should be able to easily produce wreckage of the drone if their claims are correct regarding its proximity. If they are unable to do so, it will lend further credence to American military officials’ description of the IRGC’s actions as illegal and unprovoked. This may in turn strengthen the White House’s case for a more broadly coordinated international response to Iranian threats. Its calls for such a response have been steadily ongoing since the Trump administration first announced in early May that it had gathered intelligence related to the likelihood of Iranian attacks on American assets and allies in the region.

That announcement led immediately to the expedited deployment of a US aircraft carrier to Middle Eastern waters, and this has been recognized as the de factor beginning of escalating tensions, with the drone shoot-down being their highest point so far. During these weeks, President Trump has variously expressed confidence about the prospect for military deterrence to forestall war and convince the Iranians to reconsider their aggressive posture toward regional adversaries and Western powers. But many other commentators have voiced concerns over the potential for Iran and the US to mistakenly stumble into conflict, and Wednesday’s incident seemed to further justify those fears.

Trump himself floated the idea that Iranian attack might have been in some sense unintentional. This was expressed first in a tweet that simply declared the Islamic Republic had “made a big mistake.” This message could easily be interpreted as a warning about the consequences for the IRGC’s actions, but he later clarified by saying, “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.” He went on to suggest that an individual Iranian commander might have acted in a “loose and stupid” fashion by ordering the strike.

The US president did not, however, rule out the possibility of retaliation. When pressed for comment about the prospective response, he would only say, “You’ll find out.”
Nevertheless, his comments about Iran’s “mistake” were accompanied by reaffirmation of his interest in holding talks with Iranian officials for the sake of securing an agreement that would limit Tehran’s missile activities and regional aggression. The desire for such an agreement was the rationale for Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but Iran has maintained a defiant position over the 13 subsequent months.

In fact, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other officials have explicitly rejected Trump’s overtures regarding new diplomatic talks, and this has contributed to international concerns about escalation leading to conflict. For his part, Trump has insisted that the US is not interested in going to war, but he has also boasted that the perceived unpredictability of his policies could leave Iran uncertain about what to expect. That “may very well be a good thing,” he said in a tweet in May.

The president’s caginess over his intended response to the drone shoot-down seems to suggest ongoing commitment to this strategy of unpredictability. And that is further amplified by the apparent tension between his own interpretation of the attack and that of his military officers and foreign policy advisors. As well as saying that the attack was intentional and unprovoked, the US military sought to explain the IRGC’s motivations, with some officers insisting that the drone was targeted as part of an effort to limit the monitoring of Iran’s other aggressive actions in the region.

The downing of the drone occurred roughly one week after two tankers in the Gulf of Oman were damaged in attacks that have been widely attributed to Iran. The White House and the US military explained that an IRGC boat had apparently removed an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of one of those ships but had left behind other evidence that contradicted the regime’s denial of responsibility for the blasts.

The attacks on the Kokuka Courageous and the Front Altair were preceded by attacks on four other tankers near the United Arab Emirates. The IRGC and its regional proxies are believed to have been behind those incidents, as well, and Tehran has also been linked to a number of other recent incidents including drone and missile strikes carried out by the Houthi rebels in Yemen and by Shiite paramilitary groups in Iraq.

According to The Guardian, the latest Houthi attack was virtually simultaneous with the drone shoot-down. The White House confirmed that the rebel group’s missiles, likely provided by Iran, had struck “critical infrastructure” inside Saudi Arabia. The Houthis themselves claimed to have struck a power station in Jizan Province, while the Saudis said it was a desalination plant and that only minimal damage had been incurred.

President Trump has used similar language in describing other actions linked to Iran, perhaps in the interest of dispelling worries about imminent conflict. He called the tanker attacks a “very minor” incident, although he also entertained no doubts about Iran’s responsibility for them or about the regime’s commitment to using such terrorism as a form of statecraft. This understanding of Iran’s behavior has been echoed by other American officials, although they seemed to acknowledge that actions such as the downing of an American drone would represent a meaningful escalation beyond the provocations that were already expected of the IRGC.

Speaking to Defense News earlier in the week, General Paul Selva, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the US would focus on developing international consensus regarding ways to confront such Iranian actions as the tanker attacks. But he then added, “If the Iranians come after U.S. citizens, U.S. assets or U.S. military, we reserve the right to respond with a military action. They need to know that, it needs to be very clear.”

Wednesday’s incident arguably represents the IRGC’s deliberate rejection of this warning. And that interpretation was strengthened by what CNN described as an “angry message” from the head of the hardline paramilitary in the wake of the drone shoot-down. General Hossein Salami stated that the incident sent a “clear message” to the US that Iran is “completely ready for war.” This was accompanied by the claim that Tehran is not actually pursuing conflict. But in contrast to similar statements from White House, it is arguably difficult to see what other outcome the Islamic Republic envisions, considering that it has taken negotiations off the table.

General Jack Keane, a Fox News military analyst, provided a possible explanation of Iran’s goals on Thursday, while commenting on the likely next steps following the drone incident. “They are escalating because they want our allies to put pressure on this administration to tone down the sanctions,” he said. But Keane also indicated that that strategy reflects the success of sanctions that are “having a devastating effect inside Iran internally.”

That effect can be seen in double-digit inflation and reductions in Iranian financing for foreign proxies like Hezbollah. But it has also contributed to the growth of anti-government protests throughout the country. In solidarity with those protests, the Iranian expatriate community has organized a series of demonstrations to take place across Europe and North American over the coming weeks, under the banner of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Among other goals, those demonstrations are intended to counter Iranian pressure on US allies, and to convince them that multilateral economic sanctions and military deterrence can prevent war while also weakening Iran’s theocratic regime and opening the door to popular revolt leading to a democratic transformation of the country.

Some have suggested that this sort of “regime change” is the ultimate outcome envisioned by the Trump administration as well. US officials have carefully avoided that language, but the president’s clearly stated aversion to both war and conciliatory negotiations raises questions about how else he might hope to change Iran’s “malign behavior.” In comments to the United Nations General Assembly early last year, Trump expressed unqualified support for a then-ongoing Iranian uprising and for the underlying democratic opposition movement.

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