So Iran shot down a surveillance drone. Which, admittedly, has happened before, but the tension level this time around is significantly higher, for a variety of reasons.
As to why, well… That’s complicated. And at the same time, very simple.
The complicated side has to do with the Iranian nuclear deal, and the fact that Trump pulled the United States out of it, for reasons whose validity varies depending on how one views the situation.
On the one hand, part of the deal with Iran was them disclosing any nuclear weapon programs, which they… didn’t. And then the Israelis went and found their files and smuggled them out of the country in what definitely ranks among the most ballsiest acts of espionage ever committed.
On the other hand, Iran at least appeared to be keeping to their part of the deal, though they had thus far refused access to military facilities (part of the agreement, depending on who you ask) so that inspectors could verify that they were, in fact, keeping to their part of the deal. It is, perhaps, a trifle disingenuous to say “Why yes, as you can see from our disclosed facilities, we have complied with all the particulars of the agreement, but no, you cannot go looking over there where we might be violating every particular of the agreement, because… reasons.”
Particularly when the aforementioned files that the Israelis obtained explicitly spelled out the fact that Iran had been using their military installations as sites for nuclear weapon research, and had very obviously scrubbed said sites when inspectors were finally allowed near them in the lead-up to the actual Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The argument made by those in favor of keeping to the JCPOA is that since everyone knew that Iran had been pursuing nuclear weapons, and that since those programs had been largely disbanded years earlier, Iran’s failure to disclose the information wasn’t a deal-breaker. The problem with that position, really, is that assuming the documents obtained by Israel are accurate, while some of the programs were disbanded, others were instead dispersed, and work may well have continued past what was revealed in the raid of the AMAD Project archives.
So, the short version is that Iran did indeed fail to disclose the totality of their nuclear weapons program, evidence suggests that they may not have completely abandoned the project after all, and thus far Iran has shown a fairly significant level of both duplicity and obstructionism when it comes to inspections of military sites, where we are reasonably confident that at least some of their nuclear weapons research was conducted.
I might interject at this moment that anyone who believes for a heartbeat that Iran was genuinely pursuing purely civilian nuclear power programs should be checked into the nearest mental hospital, because their connection with reality has been completely severed.
Trump pulls the US out of the deal, reimposes sanctions unilaterally, and more-or-less tells the rest of the world that if they do business with Iran, they can expect some fairly serious consequences.
Iran, obviously, is less than pleased by this, since they got one hell of a deal out of the JCPOA, basically giving up nothing in exchange for receiving everything.
Which brings us to Iran shooting down an American drone.
In my opinion, whatever that’s worth, Iran is poking the giant. Trying to see just how disruptive they can be before either the rest of the world piles on against the US to stop their shenanigans, or the US decides that the time has come to take more direct action, and they’re clearly wagering that they can get the rest of the world to give them a binky before the giant wakes up.
Assuming, of course, that they can maintain some level of deniability in said disruptive shenanigans. And little things like having, say, a high-endurance surveillance drone orbiting the area where you plan on committing your nefarious endeavors, which winds up taking video of, say, a boat full of what are probably Iranian commandos removing a dud limpet mine from the side of an oil tanker they’d previously attacked is…
Fortunately, the answer is fairly simple, as far as Iran is concerned: Shoot down the drone, claim it was in your airspace, and trust in the fact that since no actual human beings were hurt, the US won’t exactly be able to wave the scorched circuit board to build domestic support for offensive action.
After all, exactly whose airspace the drone was in is something that will ultimately come down to a “he said, she said” scenario, so while the US might present evidence that the drone was flying in international airspace, why, that evidence is clearly doctored and our evidence shows that the drone was blatantly violating our airspace, as those pesky Americans are known to do, and as such we were completely justified in blasting it out of the sky.
The real question is what the next move, for each actor in this particular play, is going to be.
Will the international community decide to somehow compensate Iran for the US’s withdrawal from the deal? I’d hope that Europe, of all people, would have learned by now what happens when you pay the Danegeld, but I’m far from confident that they haven’t managed to delude themselves that this time it will be different.
Will Iran escalate their provocations to the point where the United States feels compelled to act? If so, what form will that action take?
I mean, stepping up drone patrols in the area is the obvious countermove. After all, if Iran shoots down enough of them, that pile of scorched circuit boards will be high enough to justify sending humans if not into battle, at least into harm’s way.
The cold-blooded and completely cynical response from the US, however, would be to start sending manned surveillance craft to the area. While it’s difficult to tell exactly how capable Iran’s air defenses are (and I’m not going to bother linking to their Wikipedia page since it’s clearly being run by Iranians), we do know that they have at least some Russian systems with the reach to theoretically bring down a U-2 spy plane, assuming said plane flies low enough and/or directly over them.
Alternately, towards that same goal of collecting a bloody shirt, the US could send small patrol craft into the Persian Gulf. Something small enough to entice the Iranians into sinking it.
I mean, I wasn’t gonna vote for Trump anyway, but either of those actions would be an instant red flag, do not pass go, do not collect enough votes to win in 2020 kind of move for the administration as far as I’m concerned, because that’s basically sending Americans specifically to die so that you can start a war.
I suspect, then, that we’ll continue sending our digital spies rather than physical ones, and that eventually Iran will get caught (again) doing something nefarious, which they will deny, Europe with continue to dither, and eventually Trump is going to send enough of the US Navy into the Gulf region as to either shut down Iran’s operations in the area, or force them to take direct action that will inevitably result in a counterattack that Iran has to know they cannot withstand.
But they also know that it would cement public opinion in Iran and possibly Europe in their favor. So while it’s a war they can’t win militarily, it is one they could win politically, which brings us back to poking the giant. Even if it does wake up, under these specific circumstances (a United States rather tired of playing in the sandbox), they could come out ahead even if they get their hand swatted clean off.
It’s the time limit on this whole mess that has me truly concerned, however. Because Trump has some significant incentive to escalate the situation, one way or another. Assuming he has genuine concerns over Iranian ambitions in the Gulf region, he’ll have to put enough forces in play that if he loses in 2020, which seems likely, the following administration will have little choice but to continue in the same vein.
The alternative, rather more worrisome given my rather cynical view of American politics, is that Trump will do whatever is necessary to obtain his casus belli before the election, because Americans are historically rather loathe to change horses mid-war.
Hopefully I’m wrong. Hopefully all the players in this game come to their senses before the final moves begin, and we can resolve this situation peacefully and to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved.
And hopefully tomorrow it will rain money, because I have the sneaking suspicion that the one is just as likely as the other.