A Pentagon spokesman said Thursday that two Iranian military jets fired on a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, flying over international waters on Nov. 1, which could be a sign of increased Iranian unease following several geopolitical setbacks for Tehran.
According to the Pentagon, the UAV withdrew and the Iranian jets chased it for a short distance before abandoning pursuit. We would assume that the UAV was conducting reconnaissance of Iran. By the Pentagon's own admission, the unmanned craft was 16 nautical miles from the Iranian coastline, which would put it beyond the range of spying directly on Iranian territory but close enough to monitor Iranian naval activity. We would further assume that such reconnaissance is routine. Given that two Iranian military jets were involved, we would assume that ground control was guiding them, which would indicate that this was not a lone pilot taking a shot but a deliberate decision of the Iranian command to try to shoot down the UAV. If the description of events provided by the Pentagon is correct, then the question that arises is why the Iranians would conduct such an attack now.
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The Iranian strategic position has deteriorated substantially in recent months. Tehran had committed its resources to saving embattled Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. Had they succeeded, al Assad would have been dependent on Iran and Iranian influence in Syria would have been enormous. If that had happened, Iran would have had a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean (via Hezbollah), including their heavy influence in Iraq. That sphere of influence would have approached both the Saudi and Turkish borders, and represented not only a profound threat to the stability of Saudi Arabia but also a major shift in the balance of power in the region.
As it turned out, the Iranian strategy collapsed over the summer when the al Assad government devolved into the al Assad clan. Syria's president is now essentially a powerful warlord in control of only part of the country and only one of several such powers inside it. Iran's inability to save al Assad's national power represented a severe blow to Tehran, which lacked the resources to realize its strategy. Iran overreached and was sent reeling, with questions on the future of Iranian power in Iraq in doubt and Hezbollah's willingness to follow Iran's lead questionable. Add to this the success, at least for now, of the sanctions effort led by the United States, which has caused serious economic dislocations in Iran, and we can see that in a few months Iran shifted from a successful offense to a very uneasy defense.
Under these circumstances, Iranian sensitivity is at its height. Tehran's room for maneuver has contracted, and although Israel's very public campaign to get Washington to join it in an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities has subsided, Iran can't be certain what might have been decided. Its national security planners must prepare for the worst.
It has been a bad stretch for Iran, with some remarkable reversals for so short a period of time. It would not be surprising if their sensitivity to U.S. surveillance has also grown, prompting Tehran to test its ability to shoot down a UAV. In December 2011, a UAV crashed in Iran and the Iranians claimed credit, although the United States claimed it was mechanical failure. The latest attack as described by the Pentagon was a deliberate attempt to force U.S. reconnaissance to back off. It would appear to be a sign of Iranian unease.
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It should be remembered that they were shooting at an unmanned aircraft, which was created in part to avoid the risk to human life if the aircraft were shot down. That doesn't mean the United States is casual about losing a very expensive piece of hardware. It does mean that the U.S. military is unlikely to suspend operations. Clearly, the United States doesn't mind making the Iranians nervous.
In the wider context, this was a minor episode. However, the pressure on Iran is growing and Tehran is increasing its aggressiveness. Whether this UAV had been over Iranian territory, in Iranian airspace or over international waters when it was attacked is unimportant. If the incident took place, it may offer a glimpse into the anxiety of the Iranian regime. Going forward, it will be important to see if these attacks increase as the Iranians try to deny the United States visibility into Iran.
At the same time, a total denial of visibility is not possible, nor even desired by Iran. The regime is well versed in denial and deception techniques and understands the importance of allowing the adversary an occasional peek to reinforce its deception operations. A certain level of surveillance over Iran could also allow the Iranians to lower the alarm level on its nuclear and military activities when the need arises. As Iraq's Saddam Hussein learned, a nuclear weapons program cloaked too well can lead an adversary to assume the worst and take preventive action. Iran is unlikely to take that kind of risk, especially under the present geopolitical conditions.