Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Iran’s attack on an American surveillance drone operating above the waters of the Persian Gulf on the first of this month. Exactly who ordered the attack and why, remains unclear. And, oddest of all, the fact that the event, which took place just five days before the U.S. presidential election, was kept secret by both the United States and Iran until November 8, after that election, suggests both sides had a common interest in keeping it quiet.
That’s an important clue about whether Washington and Tehran might now move toward direct, one-on-one talks aimed at resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
First, the facts – as they are known so far. On November 8, two days after President Barack Obama’s reelection, and following media reports of Iran’s attack against the drone, Pentagon Spokesman George Little said, “I can confirm that on November 1, at approximately 4:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, an unarmed, unmanned MQ-1 U.S. military aircraft, conducting routine surveillance over the Arabian Gulf, was intercepted by Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot Aircraft and was fired upon with guns.” Less than twenty-four hours later, Iran’s Defense Minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, also confirmed the attack. And though the two sides disagreed about whether or not the drone had been flying over Iranian airspace or not, the subsequent comments from both sides – although containing the usual boilerplate, and although Little couldn’t resist calling the body of water over which the incident occurred the “Arabian Gulf” – were notable for their restraint. Neither side, apparently, wanted to ratchet up tensions.
So what were the Iranians up to? It’s certainly possible that the entire episode was set off by an overly aggressive local military commander. But other scenarios are equally plausible, and many of these lend support to the idea that Iran is preparing itself, and its population, for talks and possibly an agreement with the United States.
First, there is the possibility that the attack on the drone was initiated by a hardline faction within Iran’s military, most likely within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who are opposed to any sort of deal with the United States. This scenario gains credibility from the fact that the two planes that attacked the drone were under the command of the IRGC, not Iran’s regular air force. The inner core of the IRGC has plenty of reasons to fear an accord with the United States, since it would put the brakes on any future effort to militarize the nuclear program in pursuit of atomic weapons and, among other things, the fact that the lifting of economic sanctions would deprive the IRGC of its vastly profitable smuggling network for critical imports through a network of unofficial ports run by individuals and organizations affiliated with the IRGC. In addition, there is undoubtedly within Iran’s top leadership and the IRGC in particular, a faction ideologically opposed to a rapprochement with “The Great Satan.”