Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
What next on Iran’s nuclear deal: follow the news here

Capture of US drone provides respite for Iran

Despite Iran's threats, analysts doubt the country will retaliate militarily, given its inability to match American firepower.

"Satan's eye has been gouged out," a jubilant Iranian daily trumpeted yesterday, referring to Iran's capture of an unmanned US surveillance drone that was apparently staking out the Islamic republic's nuclear facilities. And the deputy chief of Iran's armed forces warned that "the US government will have to pay a high price for its unacceptable actions".

Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri declared: "Our defensive actions will not be limited to our geographical borders." A leading parliamentarian, Esmail Kowsari, chipped in by warning that if another drone tried to fly over Iran, the country would "target every US military base anywhere in the world."

Despite the lurid threats, however, analysts doubt Iran will retaliate militarily, given its inability to match American firepower. Tehran's propaganda and intelligence coup in netting the radar-evading, RQ-170 Sentinel drone last week can instead be used by the increasingly isolated regime to drum up domestic support while bolstering its claims that Iran is the victim of American aggression.

The episode has also helped to distract attention from ever-tightening sanctions and the diplomatic fallout from the recent storming of the British Embassy in Tehran.

"It is far better to use the prospect of a western threat, which is always hanging there, to get the population to mobilise behind the regime … than actually taking action," said Scott Lucas, an expert on Iran and US foreign policy at Birmingham University in England.

Other analysts point out that Iran has failed to retaliate against a seemingly intensifying campaign of covert operations by the US and Israel, which may be working independently or, at times, together.

There has been a spate of mysterious explosions inside Iran, nuclear scientists have been assassinated, and the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz was temporarily disrupted by the Stuxnet virus last year.

The covert campaign, together with punitive sanctions, has aimed to derail Iran's suspected quest for nuclear weapon's capability - an ambition Tehran denies - without having to resort to direct military action that could lead to a regional conflagration and plunge the global economy into further turmoil.

Neither the US nor Israel has acknowledged responsibility for these various attacks, although each has expressed satisfaction with any resulting setbacks to Iran's nuclear programme.

In turn Iran, which is usually keen to blame both arch enemies for all its troubles, has gone out of its way to insist that recent explosions were accidents that had nothing to do with the 'Great Satan' (America) or the 'Zionist entity' (Israel).

The most serious 'accident' took place on November 12 when a huge explosion ripped through a Revolutionary Guards base 48 kilometres west of Tehran, killing at least 17 people, including a founder of Iran's ballistic missile programme, General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.

So why has Iran not hit back? One theory is that despite sanctions, the mysterious explosions, assassinations and the Stuxnet attack, Tehran was steadily progressing with its nuclear programme. "And if they were to retaliate right now, they may provide [the US with the pretext] for a larger war" which could seriously set back Iran's cherished atomic ambitions, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, on relations between Iran, the US and Israel, said.

Despite heated rhetoric on both sides, neither Iran nor the US wants a military confrontation and each has shown restraint. For instance, the US had mulled plans to go into Iran and recover or destroy the captured drone but decided not to because of the "escalatory risk of it", Dr Parsi said in an interview.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst based in Israel, argues that the main goal of the US drone operation to spy on Iran was to "expose any secret nuclear activity that can be used to muscle Iran back to the negotiating table".

He added in an interview: "I see the entire international community preferring a peaceful solution to this problem. But it seems to me the thinking in the West that (Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei is not going to come to the negotiating table of his own will, so he has to be forced."

In the absence of direct dialogue with Tehran, however, covert operations could "very easily lead to a real war", said Dr Parsi, author of A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, published this month.

A major point of concern is the possibility of clashes between US and Iranian warships in the crowded waters of the Gulf.

Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iran at the University of Hawaii, said: "It's a thin line that the Obama administration is trying to walk: on the one hand fanning speculation that it, along with Israel, is indeed engaged in covert operations… to unsettle Tehran, and on the other hand claiming that it is the more righteous player in this war of nerves."

Iran is, meanwhile, revelling in the US's embarrassment over the loss of a CIA drone 250 kilometres inside Iranian territory. Boasting technological prowess, Iran claims the aircraft was brought down last week by an "electronic ambush" by a Revolutionary Guards cyber unit.

Tehran will also hope that the drone incident complicates US relations with Afghanistan, where the stealth aircraft was based. Iran's foreign ministry yesterday summoned the Afghan ambassador to protest the violation of Iranian airspace.

And, goading the US, Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency reported on Thursday that Russia and Chinese officials have asked for permission to inspect the captured drone.

How it came down is unclear. The largely intact, boomerang-shaped aircraft was triumphantly paraded on Iranian television on Thursday night. US officials, rejecting Iran's claims the aircraft was electronically hijacked, said it suffered a malfunction.

Some aviation experts said the drone is basically a glider, which could come down gently if it ran out of fuel: it would be damaged only slightly on landing unless it hit something.

Yet the drone was supposedly programmed to either automatically return to its base in Afghanistan in the event of a mishap or possibly even self-destruct. So how it was recovered by the delighted Iranians remains a mystery.

mtheoudoulou@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National