Dangerous and provocative - is this Iran or the US?

Iran captured a CIA Sentinel drone - now the Republicans want Obama to "go get it"
Michael Walker
21 December 2011

The reaction of Republican presidential candidates to the loss of an American spy plane over Iran provides a concerning insight into what might come to pass should President Obama lose next year’s election.

For those who have not been following this fascinating story, a little background is in order. At the beginning of December a Sentinel drone – an unmanned spy plane flying out of Afghanistan and operated by the CIA – went missing over Iran. Footage of a captured and apparently intact drone appeared on Iranian TV, with Iran claiming it had been brought down 140 miles from its border with Afghanistan.

Iranian officials have boasted that they felled the spy plane by employing some form of electronic wizardry. Some detail was provided by an unnamed Iranian engineer, who told the Christian Science Monitor that Iranian technicians had managed to ‘spoof’ the drone by tampering with its GPS system, causing it to “land in Iran at what the drone thought was its actual home base in Afghanistan.” The knowledge necessary to carry out this operation had been gleaned from studying other drones captured by Iran, he said.

The US government has not denied that they were spying on Iran. As stated in the New York Times, “American officials have acknowledged [the drone] was part of a stepped-up effort to monitor suspected Iranian nuclear sites.” US officials have, however, poured scorn on the Iranian claim that they downed the Sentinel, insisting that it malfunctioned.  According to an Obama administration official quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the drone had “crashed, and they [Iran] put it back together to make it look whole.”

Regardless of which side is telling the truth about how the drone came down, its capture has provided Iran with a PR coup of prodigious proportions. Indeed, the Iranians have milked it for all it’s worth, lodging a complaint at the UN and announcing plans for an exhibition, the highlight of which is to be a display of seven drones that Iran claims to have brought down, four from Israel and three from the US. 

Rather than refusing to comment on the episode, which would have been par for the course for a covert operation, senior members of the Obama administration took the bizarre step of asking for the drone back. In a press conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Washington D.C., US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that that the US had “submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment”. She saw little likelihood that Iran would co-operate, however, observing that given “Iran’s behavior to date we do not expect them to comply,” before alluding to “all of these [Iranian] provocations and concerning actions.”

The American request that their spy plane be returned displayed considerable chutzpah. The drone had violated Iranian airspace, an illegal and dangerous action, especially when you consider that Iran and the US do not have diplomatic relations and leading US officials have refused to rule out attacking Iran over its nuclear programme. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta remarked to CBS News on December 19th, “there are no options off the table” when it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Asking for the drone back also smacked of hypocrisy and double standards. Just imagine how the US would have responded had the Iranians sent a jet into American airspace! It’s not exactly far-fetched to assume some form of military ‘reprisal’ would occur in such circumstances.

While the Obama administration’s response to the drone incident has been cack-handed and hypocritical, the reaction of Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry has been genuinely alarming. Romney, who has been widely tipped to win the Republican nomination, has castigated the President over this affair. As a Republican, Romney’s criticism has unsurprisingly not centred on the fact that sending drones over Iran is illegal and provocative. He has instead excoriated Obama for being “extraordinarily weak and timid.”

“I find it incomprehensible that he didn’t destroy it or go get it,” Romney told Fox News on December 14th. “I think destroying it would have been a good deal easier. Destroy it immediately or go get it.” He took up the theme again the following day in Sioux City, Iowa, during a televised debate with other Republican presidential hopefuls, when he ridiculed Obama for saying “pretty please” to Iran, drawing guffaws from the audience.

In his remarks, Texas Governor Perry joined in the attack on Obama. Asserting that the president had pursued “the most muddled foreign policy that I can ever remember in my lifetime” (worse than George W. Bush’s, apparently), Perry declared that Obama had chosen “the worst and the weakest” course of action for dealing with the loss of the drone. Taking his cue from Romney’s remarks to Fox News, Perry said that “What we should have done was one of two things: we either destroy it or we retrieve it.” This was greeted with a round of applause from the audience.

As it happens, the president and his advisers did indeed consider infiltrating a commando unit into Iran to retrieve or blow up the lost spy plane; destroying it by an air strike was also mooted. However, as a US official explained to the Wall Street Journal, these options were rejected “because of the potential it could become a larger incident.” This official rightly pointed out that the US "could be accused of an act of war" by Iran were a commando squad deployed inside Iran.

These qualms are clearly not shared by Messrs Romney and Perry. It appears that, from their perspective, going down a path that carried with it the possibility of sparking off a regional conflict would have been preferable to looking “weak and timid.”

There is another point to make here. How exactly would the US have located the missing drone? Iran is a vast country, and unless the drone was equipped with a tracking device that continued to work even following the malfunction acknowledged by US officials, it is hard to fathom how it could have been found.

The lone voice of sanity regarding the capture of the drone was Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, a noted critic of US foreign policy, who asked “Why were we flying the drone over Iran?” As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted, Paul’s position was “unorthodox.” Indeed, it is very hard to envision Paul winning the Republican nomination, given that his views on foreign policy put him way to the left of the Democrats themselves.

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