Did Iran Just Invite a U.S. Attack?

“This country will not stand for it,” Trump says after drone shootdown.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A U.S. Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, an example of which is seen here on June 11, 2012, was shot down by Iranian IRGC surface-to-air missiles near the Strait of Hormuz.
A U.S. Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, an example of which is seen here on June 11, 2012, was shot down by Iranian IRGC surface-to-air missiles near the Strait of Hormuz. Erik Hildebrandt/U.S. Navy via Northrup Grumman

Iran on Thursday deliberately upped the stakes in its showdown with the United States by shooting down a U.S. reconnaissance drone near the Strait of Hormuz and targeting a key Saudi water facility with a Houthi rocket attack. The strikes, coming after a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman attributed to Iran and Tehran’s decision to stop complying with some of its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal, risk tipping the standoff into outright confrontation.

“Iran made a very big mistake!” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday. When asked at the Oval Office while meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau how the United States might respond, Trump said he had campaigned on ending U.S. involvement in never-ending wars in the Middle East.

“But this is a new wrinkle, a new fly in the ointment what happened, shooting down a drone. And this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you,” Trump told reporters. Trump had previously dismissed the reportedly Iranian attacks on six tankers over the past six weeks as “very minor,” saying they wouldn’t trigger a U.S. military response.

Early Thursday morning local time, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces shot down an advanced U.S. reconnaissance drone—the first attack on any U.S. assets since Tehran began lashing out at regional rivals over the intensified American economic pressure campaign last month. Iran said that the drone had violated Iranian airspace, a red line guaranteed to prompt a sharp response.

The U.S. Defense Department said the drone was flying in international airspace more than 20 miles off the Iranian coast and said it is working to recover the drone’s debris in international waters. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time during its mission,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, in a brief statement.

U.S. lawmakers are concerned that administration hawks may push for war with Iran, joined by Republican senators such as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who was calling for military retaliation against Iran even before the drone incident. Democratic senators including Tim Kaine, Tom Udall, and Jeff Merkley took to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon to rally support for an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would give Congress, not the White House, final say over any hostilities with Iran.

Trump administration officials and Trump himself have been at odds on how to respond to Iranian aggression near the Persian Gulf over the past month. Complicating everything is the fact that the Pentagon this week got its third chief this six months, as Army Secretary Mark Esper steps in to replace the former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew his nomination for personal reasons.

National Security Advisor John Bolton struck a hawkish tone, warning that the United States would not tolerate any Iranian interference with vital shipping routes that raise the price of oil, which jumped again more than 3 percent after Thursday’s drone downing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to draw the clearest line when he privately warned Iran that any actions that led to the death of U.S. service members would prompt an immediate U.S. military response. Deliberately targeting an unmanned, unarmed drone would seem to be a calculation by Iran to stay below that threshold.

“Obviously, the most worrying thing is an escalation getting out of hand. But it seems both Iran and the U.S. are making very measured moves,” said Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Shooting down an ‘unmanned’ asset instead of endangering some lives is one of them.”

The drone may have been unmanned, but it wasn’t a cheap or expendable asset. Costing more than $120 million apiece—more than some models of the vaunted F-35 fighter jet—the drone is designed to stay aloft for more than 24 hours and can fly higher than 50,000 feet, seemingly making it nearly invulnerable to most surface-to-air missiles. The drone was monitoring traffic in the vital Strait of Hormuz in the wake of the tanker attacks when it was shot down.

The very fact that the drone got close enough to Iranian air defense to get shot down indicates that U.S. military commanders were trying to collect updated intelligence on their capability, said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. This likely means they are “updating the attack plan,” he said.

“Updating an attack plan doesn’t mean you are going to attack,” Pape cautioned. “But this is happening in the middle of a crisis where the use of force is [on the table]. This cauldron is brewed for miscalculation.”

The Global Hawk drone is a prime example of the U.S. military’s cutting-edge unmanned technology. It carries a suite of advanced sensors, including electro-optical cameras that see for miles and a synthetic aperture radar system that can peek through clouds. (The downed plane was a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator, an early iteration of the Global Hawk.)

The shooting down of the high-tech U.S. drone got most of the attention Thursday, but another attack carried out by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen could be an even more serious sign of Iran’s willingness to hit its regional foes exactly where it hurts. Late Wednesday, Houthi forces fired projectiles at a Saudi Arabian water desalination plan—just over a month after they successfully hit a Saudi oil pipeline pumping station and a week after striking a Saudi airport.

The Houthi strike did not appear to damage the water and power plant. But given Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming reliance on desalination plants to turn seawater into fresh water, such an attack is even more of a threat to Riyadh than pinprick strikes on its massive oil sector, such as the temporary blow to the pipeline pumping station or the pair of tankers damaged in the May attack.

“Water is one of the most important security vulnerabilities the Saudis have. You can live without oil; you can’t live without water,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East energy and water expert at the National Defense University in Washington. Modern-day Saudi Arabia’s utter reliance on energy-hungry desalination plants to get fresh water is one reason the oil-rich kingdom is eager to start an expensive and controversial nuclear power program.

And even though Wednesday’s strike apparently failed to do any damage, that doesn’t mean it didn’t have any effect on Saudi thinking, Sullivan said.

“Just because they missed this time doesn’t mean there isn’t a psychological effect. They will keep on trying until they hit them, and when they really hit one all hell is going to break loose,” he said.

Reporters Elias Groll and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP