x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Drone attack unlikely to derail US-Iran relations

Washington insists its Predator drone was fired on in international airspace east of Kuwait but Tehran maintains its airspace was violated. Just 6.5 kilometres separates those boundaries.

An unprecedented attack by Iranian warplanes on a US surveillance drone over the Gulf last week - revealed only late on Thursday - highlights how tensions in the region could spin rapidly out of control.

But what was a potentially incendiary engagement is unlikely to derail an expected diplomatic drive to defuse the standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme, analysts said yesterday. Had the drone not escaped unscathed, the outcome could have been very different

"Maybe Iran was showing a bit of muscle before the talks, but more likely this was a chance military skirmish," said Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England.

Predictably, the US and Iran gave conflicting accounts of the November 1 incident, just days before the US presidential election. Both US president Barack Obama and Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, were woken early to be informed.

Washington insists its Predator drone was fired on in international airspace east of Kuwait but Tehran maintains its airspace was violated. Just 6.5 kilometres separates those boundaries.

The US relies on drones to garner intelligence from Iran because it has few assets on the ground.

Without specifically referring to the incident, a Revolutionary Guards general, Masoud Jazayeri, vowed yesterday that Iran would respond strongly to any "invasion".

George Little, the Pentagon's chief spokesman said two Iranian Russian-built SU-25 jets had fired on the unarmed Predator drone that he insisted was at all times in international airspace.

It was unclear whether the much faster Iranian warplanes had wanted to shoot down the unmanned drone - an event that could have forced US retaliation - or just warn it off. But Mr Little said: "Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down." He declined to say whether the engagement constituted an act of war.

In a warning to Tehran, he said the US was prepared to safeguard its forces. "We have a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military, to protect our military assets in the region and will do so when necessary."

Even so, a senior US administration official told The New York Times the incident should not be viewed as a prelude to a broader military confrontation. Nor should it scupper potential diplomatic contacts between the two counties over Tehran's nuclear programme.

"We view the incident as problematic," the official said, "but we're wary of the possibility of unintended escalation."

The risk of a direct Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear programme has recently eased, but there are fears a shadow war between all sides is growing, involving cyber-attacks, bombings and assassinations.

Reza Marashi, director of the National Iranian American Council, described the drone incident as part of a "dangerous cycle of mutual escalation". Tehran, struggling under sanctions hitting its vital oil sector, is keen to re-engage with six world powers, including the US, on finding a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute. Those talks, stalled since June, are due to resume later this month or in December.

Iran has suggested it is prepared to talk directly with the US. There was relief in Tehran at Barack Obama's re-election, even though the official response was lukewarm.

"If the interest of the regime requires it, we are prepared to negotiate with the devil in the pits of hell," said a senior Iranian regime official, Mohammad Javad Larijani.

In December last year, a US spy drone monitoring Iran's nuclear facilities was captured in eastern Iran. Tehran claimed its cyber soldiers brought down the aircraft intact and were reverse-engineering its technology. Washington said its Sentinel drone had malfunctioned and was forced to land.

The US state department on Thursday unveiled yet more sanctions on Iran, targeting the communications minister among others for censoring the media and the internet. Officials in Washington yesterday said legislators were working on a "complete sanctions regime that would prevent Iran from doing business with much of the world".