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Iran shoots down US military drone, increasing risk of war

One Pentagon official told me “all variables point to war.”

Iranian soldiers march past former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the annual army day military parade on April 17, 2008 in Tehran, Iran.
Iranian soldiers march past former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the annual army day military parade on April 17, 2008, in Tehran.
Majid/Getty Images

Iranian forces just shot down a US military drone, a major escalation that could push the two-month standoff between America and the Islamic Republic into very dangerous territory — and possibly bring the two countries much closer to war.

Both Washington and Tehran have confirmed the US Navy drone’s downing, the first direct attack on the US military during current tensions — but their accounts strongly differ.

Iranian officials say the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s hugely influential security and military organization responsible for the protection and survival of the regime, struck a US surveillance drone with a missile and shot it out of the sky. It did so, they say, because the drone entered Iranian airspace in the southern province of Hormozga.

“Borders are our red lines. Any enemy that invades these borders will not return,” IRGC commander Hossein Salami said after the attack. “We don’t have any intention to go [to] war with any country, but we are completely ready for war,” he continued, adding that the downing sent “a clear message” to America.

US officials tell a different story. They say the military drone was flying in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial maritime passage for the global energy trade that’s aggressively patrolled by Iran, before the drone came crashing down. “Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for US Central Command, said in a Thursday morning statement. “This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.”

The downed surveillance drone was an RQ-4A Global Hawk, Urban added, an aircraft that costs roughly $130 million.

Ulrike Franke, a drones expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Thursday that the “[t]he Global Hawk is the biggest drone in use in the world” and “also flies very high” — about 10 miles up — “and is thus supposed to be very difficult to shoot down.”

A full-scale model of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned drone is displayed during a presentation at PiO Exhibition Center on March 24, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan.
A full-scale model of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned drone is displayed during a presentation at PiO Exhibition Center on March 24, 2010, in Tokyo.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is unhappy with Iran’s action, tweeting Thursday morning that “Iran made a very big mistake!”

It’s also possible that Iran tried to shoot down a second drone but missed, according to Fox News. There seems to be a pattern: Last week, the US military said Iran tried to strike a US drone with a missile as well.

This isn’t the first time Iran has taken out a US military drone. In 2011, for example, the country brought down a US spy drone flying about 140 miles into the Islamic Republic’s territory, going so far as to show footage of it on state television. The US, though, claimed the aircraft simply crashed.

The difference now is that both sides agree a drone was forcibly destroyed at a time when tensions are incredibly high between the US and Iran. The Trump administration accuses Iran of severely damaging six oil tankers since May and having plans to attack Americans in the Middle East.

Tehran, meanwhile, has threatened to no longer abide by parts of the 2015 nuclear deal, which experts say is likely in an effort to get the US to remove tough sanctions on its economy.

The US withdrew from that agreement last year and reimposed financial penalties on the country.

While Iran usually avoids a direct conflict with America, Benham Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Washington think tank told me, in this case “Tehran is gambling that Washington won’t respond forcibly here.”

That bet might not pay off.

The biggest issue now “is how we maintain deterrence without risking full-fledged war,” a Pentagon official told me on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t know if that’s possible in this heated environment.”

The Trump administration is preparing for war

According to the Washington Post on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has delivered a private message to Iran: The killing of just one US service member will lead to an American military response.

No one died in the drone attack — it’s a remotely piloted aircraft, after all — so the drone incident doesn’t cross Pompeo’s red line. But some US officials worry this latest incident puts Washington and Tehran on a collision course.

“Controlled escalation between two old adversaries who don’t talk directly is tricky business. All variables point to war,” the Pentagon official told me, adding that Trump’s “two top advisers are ready to start shooting and we in the department don’t have leadership.”

The official was referring to Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who many say are setting the scene for a fight with Iran.

A Politico report last week detailed how Bolton and members of his National Security Council staff are calling lower-level Pentagon employees and inserting themselves into the chain of command. “Bolton is driving all things policy,” an unnamed former defense official told Politico, a characterization the Defense Department rejects.

That same Washington Post story notes how Bolton “has dominated Iran policy, keeping a tight rein on information that gets to the president and sharply reducing meetings in which top officials gather in the White House’s Situation Room to discuss the policy.”

As for Pompeo, he met with Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US troops in the Middle East, this week to discuss Iran. That’s unusual: That kind of meeting is typically attended by the Pentagon boss, not America’s top diplomat.

What’s more, he’s seemingly making the case that a 9/11-era law that authorized the US military to fight al-Qaeda and its allies gives the current administration permission to fight Iran too. There is little public evidence, though, that Tehran and the terrorist group actively work together.

But even Pompeo is quick to point out that President Donald Trump doesn’t actually want a war with Iran, which could mean the US won’t respond forcibly to the drone’s downing.

“The only thing stopping [a war] is the preference of Trump not to get involved in the region again,” the Pentagon official also told me. “But we all know he’s erratic and can change his mind easily.”

The US on Tuesday said it would send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Tehran, adding to the many thousands already in the region.

It’s possible both sides find a way out of the tit-for-tat escalation that has only grown in recent weeks. When I asked Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass if the US-Iran standoff is a bona fide crisis, he said, “It could turn out to be, but for now it falls short of being a crisis. Much depends on whether the administration offers Iran an offramp” — like a revised nuclear deal — “and then whether Iran takes it in exchange for some relief from sanctions.”

But as long as Iran shoots drones out of the sky and damages tankers while the US continues to impose sanctions, it’s likely that matters between the two countries will get worse before they get better.

“If it becomes a crisis,” Haass said, “it will have been one largely brought about by the administration.”

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