Iran’s downing of the US RQ-4A Global Hawk drone was a provocative move amidst growing tensions between Tehran and Washington. This move is likely to result in consequences for the Iranian regime and society. This Iran in-depth piece aims to explore possible consequences and the reaction one is likely to see from the Iranian regime. Before delving into the crux of the piece it is important to provide some details regarding this incident.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said on June 20 that it had shot down an “intruding American spy drone” after it had violated Iran’s airspace. The downed surveillance drone costs approximately $130 million and according to Ulrike Franke, a drones expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “the Global Hawk is the biggest drone in use in the world and also flies very high….about 10 miles up….and is thus supposed to be very difficult to shoot down.” A US official confirmed to CNN that a drone had been shot down but disputed the Iranian version as to where the drone had been shot down.
The Iranian’s insist that the drone was shot down inside Iranian territory. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a timeline of the incident in which he said, “At 00:14 US drone took off from the UAE in stealth mode and violated Iranian airspace.” This is not the first time Iran has hit a US drone. It took down a RQ-170 stealth drone in 2011 and it is reported that it reverse-engineered it to create its own variant drones from the information it retrieved from the wreckage.
Ten days before the incident, Iran announced an upgrade of its Khordad anti-aircraft missile system which has nearly double the range and is indigenous, being born out of a series of reverse-engineering successes and technology being procured over the years by the sanctions-hit country.
The US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook in the aftermath of the downing of the US drone said that this incident leaves the Iranian regime “even more diplomatically isolated.” President Donald Trump, in shock over the aggression shown by Iran towards the United States, approved military strikes in retaliation for the downing of the US drone, before reversing his decision. President Trump has made it clear that he does not want war with Iran, but if it comes there will be “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.”
The US National Security Adviser John Bolton warned Iran against misinterpreting the last-minute cancellation of military strikes, “Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness.” In order not to appear weak, the United States launched cyber attacks against Iranian missile control systems and a spy network. President Trump secretly authorized US Cyber Command to carry out a retaliatory attack. This cyber attack came shortly after the US President had pledged to hit the Iranian regime with major new sanctions as part of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy to cripple the Iranian economy and to place Iran’s political class in a stranglehold, forcing it to enter new negotiations with the United States.
Iran has called the new US sanctions “economic terrorism” and President Trump’s move is likely to increase pressure on the Iranian regime, which could react by attacking oil tankers or US drones again or it could unleash its proxies across the region against the United States and its allies interests. The US sanctions target senior IRGC leaders, whom the United States said were “responsible for downing the US unmanned aircraft.” The United States expects Tehran to push back against the intensified sanctions. Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran said, “They are going to push back and it is important that the international community does not let Iran get away with the status quo of an acceptable level of violence.” On his arrival in the UAE in the aftermath of the incident, Hook said, “We have enhanced our force posture in the region and I am here to deepen our cooperation with our allies to restore deterrence against Iran’s attacks, to isolate Iran diplomatically and to build support for our efforts to reverse Iran’s power projection.”
Iran’s downing of the US drone did not go in its favor completely as it raised international concerns regarding its provocative behavior in the Gulf. Even European nations were quick to condemn this incident. Iran is facing more diplomatic isolation and economic pressures, with the net result being further economic deterioration and declining living standards. To distract the domestic scene from its troubles, Iran will most probably react and unleash more attacks in the Gulf and instigate its proxies to derail US interests in the region. If Iran was to do this, the already volatile situation in the Gulf will spiral out of control bringing the region closer to the prospect of war between Tehran and Washington. Even though both states have made it clear that they are not interested in war, neither state can be seen to be weak, particularly as Iran needs to satisfy its hardliner political class and President Trump needs to be seen as tough on Iran as presidential elections approach in 2020.