20 June 2019   Leave a comment

Iran shot down a US reconnaissance drone in the Strait of Hormuz. The RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drone is one of the most advanced drones in the US arsenal. Iran claims that the drone was in its airspace; the US claims it was flying in international airspace. The incident is a significant escalation of the recent tension. The information about the incident is still very limited and contested, so it is difficult to come to any conclusion. But it is important that the drone was unmanned, otherwise the political pressures for a response would be intense.

US Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella, who commands US air forces in the region spoke to the US press over a audio link and insisted that the drone was in international airspace: ” “At the time of the intercept the RQ-4 was at high altitude, approximately 34 kilometers from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast.” Unfortunately, Guastella took no questions from the press.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif posted a hand-drawn map of the route taken by the drone in the Persian Gulf.

Curiously, US President Trump initially downplayed the significance of the attack in a meeting in the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau:

“Trump called Iran’s move a big mistake in remarks to reporters before a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but kept open the possibility of talks with Iran.

“He also suggested that the shooting down of a US drone by Iran might have been a mistake.

“’I find it hard to believe it was intentional,’ Trump said at the White House in comments that appeared to downplay the incident, despite soaring tension in the strategic Strait of Hormuz area.

“’I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody who should not have been doing,’ he said.”

The comments may have been an attempt to provide some wiggle room for the US as it considers its response. But the statement will only contribute to the confusion of the moment. Note that the Pentagon statement only says that the drone was intercepted in international airspace; it does not say that the drone was always in international airspace. Both the US and Iran would simultaneously be telling the truth.

The messages being sent by Iran thus far are both provocative and restrained. The earlier attacks on the oil tankers (if they were indeed done by Iran–that point has yet to be uncontested) were calibrated to ensure that the damage was above the waterline of the tankers and resulted in no causalities at all. Similarly, the attack on the drone avoided fatalities. If the Iranians wanted war with the US, they likely had more lethal options. It is also important to remember that the Iranians are the aggrieved party in this dispute: it has yet to violate the nuclear agreement but has nonetheless been targeted by crippling sanctions imposed by the US on all who trade with Iran, even those states that do not believe that Iran deserves to be sanctioned.

So the thing we should look for next is the response of the US which is inevitable. Will the US take action that results in the deaths of Iranian personnel or will it make sure that the only message is that further military actions by Iran will not yield any advantage–the most important element of deterrence. As indicated in earlier posts of this blog, there are strong voices in the Administration (Pompeo and Bolton) that are committed to regime change in Iran.

The second thing to look for is the Congressional response. The Trump Administration may seek to justify any retaliation against Iran as covered by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). That law authorized the President to use force to address the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda. According to Lawfare:

“The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001), enacted shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, constitutes the main source of congressional authorization for the war on terror. The AUMF grants the President the authority to use all ‘necessary and appropriate force’ against those whom he determines ‘planned, authorized, committed or aided’ the September 11th attacks, or who harbored those persons or groups.”

Despite assertions by Secretary of State Pompeo that Iran and al Qaeda are allied, there is precious little evidence that the assertion is accurate. But the current Attorney General, William Barr, has an extraordinarily expansive view of the President’s war-making powers. Tess Bridgeman, Rebecca Ingber and Stephen Pomper, writing for Just Security do an excellent job of dissecting Barr’s position.

Third, if the US does retaliate in a disproportionate manner, we should be prepared for deafening silence from US allies. There are very few states that have supported the US position on Iran, and there is virtually no chance that any of them would support US action that could potentially disrupt the global energy system and, consequently, the global economy. Such an outcome would clearly signal the end of the liberal international order that the US has supported since 1945, but which has been unraveling since 2001.

Posted June 20, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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