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.”
But, the fact that the event was kept quiet, especially on the Iranian side, means the leaders in Iran agreed not to brag about the attack which, after all, could have weakened President Obama in the final few days of the election campaign, if he chose not to respond militarily. Alternately, had the incident been made public before the U.S. election, and had Obama responded by using military force, it would have poisoned the atmosphere for post-election negotiations, perhaps fatally. In either case, by keeping a lid on the event, the hardliners’ plot, if there was one, was foiled.
A third possibility, of course, is that the attack on the drone was ordered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others in his leading circle. If so, the fact that it was not announced at the time is a strong signal that the leadership simply intended it as a show of toughness and resolve in advance of what will be a bitter pill for many Iranians to swallow, namely, the open pursuit of an accord with the United States, the P5+1, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The unarmed drone – even if it were operating, as the United States insists, in international waters – was a relatively safe and harmless target which, even if it had been shot down, probably wouldn’t have provoked an American military response, yet at the same time was a target symbolic enough to allow Iran to claim resolve in defending its territory. Indeed, after the episode was made public, Major General Seyed Masoud Jazaeri told Fars News, a semi-official Iranian news agency with ties to the IRGC, “The Iranian armed forces will respond decisively to any act of transgression. If any foreign planes try to enter our country’s space, our armed forces will confront them.”
Since the incident, both sides have signaled, more or less, that they’re ready for talks.
On the same day that Iran confirmed the attack on the drone, for example, it also announced that it will resume its dialogue with the IAEA next month when an agency delegation arrives in Tehran. More importantly, in an unprecedented statement, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) issued a report on November 6 – Election Day in the United States – indicating a strong desire to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically. The report was posted on the MOI’s website and reported on extensively by Iran’s media. In it, the ministry – which is considered very close to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader – said that it is foolhardy to ignore the threat of war over the nuclear program, adding: “One of those is the adoption of diplomatic and political policies and utilizing the potential of international forums, which is a necessary course and of course is less-costly.” The report went out of its way to praise President Obama, saying that he “hopes to solve this issue peacefully and through diplomacy,” albeit also reiterating that Iran ultimately stood ready to defend itself should the U.S. or Israel resort to military action.
And, just two weeks before the U.S. election, the New York Times published a bombshell story saying that the United States and Iran had tacitly agreed to one-on-one talks following the election. And, while that story was denied at the time by the White House, since the election President Obama has signaled that he’s ready to sit down with Iranian leaders, if that’s what it takes, albeit while still claiming there are no current plans for one-on-one talks. On November 14, in a news conference, Obama was explicit. “I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem,” he told reporters. “I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically. There should be a way in which [Iran] can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon. And so yes, I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved.”