Despite Iran's threats, analysts doubt the country will retaliate militarily, given its inability to match American firepower.
Capture of US drone provides respite for Iran
"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.