National Security & Defense

Was Iran’s Downing of a U.S. Drone Really a ‘Mistake’?

RQ-4 Global Hawk drone (Bobbi Zapka/USAF/Handout via Reuters)
History suggests that Trump may be understating the regime’s involvement.

Speaking to the press today alongside Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, President Donald Trump repeatedly called Iran’s downing of an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone “a bad mistake” but held his cards close to his chest when asked what the U.S. response might be. While Trump has taken a harder line toward Iran than any of his predecessors, he did appear to leave himself some wiggle room to escape demands that U.S. credibility mandated a military response.

“I have a feeling that someone under the command of that country made a big mistake,” he said. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional. It could have been someone who was loose and stupid who did it.”

Perhaps Trump is right to avoid direct military conflict with a country almost four times the size of Iraq, but he may well be wrong to believe that the downing of the U.S. drone was an act that Iran’s senior political and military leadership did not approve.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a dictatorship, but it is a not a dictatorship like any other in the world. True, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rules for life and claims ultimate political and religious authority. Article 110 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic gives the “supreme commander of the armed forces” power to appoint and dismiss the chief of the general staff, the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the supreme commanders of the army, navy, and air force.

But, more often than not, Khamenei prefers to rule by veto, allowing his subordinates to pursue almost any policy that he has not expressly forbidden. This requires deep insight into ongoing policy debates, something Khamenei achieves with an elaborate system of clerical commissars. While the supreme leader’s representatives to the Quds Force,the IRGC, and other top bodies are usually public figures, far less is known about rank-and-file commissars, although some acknowledge their role when they post biographies and CVs prior to parliamentary elections. In all, there are probably fewer than 2,000.

While KGB commissars in the Soviet Union guarded their ideology and whispered instructions to Soviet officials, the supreme leader’s “political guides” focus more on reporting debates as they occur through their own bureaucratic stovepipes up to the supreme leader or his immediate associates. If the debates fall within the parameters of Khamenei’s comfort zone, he remains silent. Otherwise, he utilizes Friday prayers to lay down red lines and to veto specific arguments. In effect, the sermons given by regime officials weekly in Tehran and in every major town and city are the equivalent of the State of the Union address in the United States.

The net result of this system is to provide Khamenei and senior Iranian leaders with plausible deniability and to shield them from accountability for their actions. Right now, it is a good bet that Trump and CIA director Gina Haspel have ordered analysts to pore through the signals intelligence (SIGINT) and intercept phone calls to find a smoking gun. They likely won’t find one, since the Iranian system does not operate with a chain of command like that in any other country.

The likely reality of Iranian responsibility, however, can be inferred from pattern analysis. Consider the following episodes, each of which was an outrage at its time, and all of which proponents of diplomacy dismissed as rogue actions for which the Iranian government should not be considered collectively responsible:

  • The murder, in Vienna on July 13, 1989, of Abdol-Rahman Ghassemlou, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), and of several associates, whom Iranian officials asked to meet in Vienna to negotiate an end to their ethnic insurgency.
  • The murder, on September 17, 1992, of three KDPI leaders and a supporter at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin by two Iranian hitmen, assisted by four Lebanese Hezbollah operatives.
  • The bombing, on July 18, 1994, of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 85 plus the bomber.
  • The smuggling of explosively formed projectiles into Iraq to murder U.S. forces after 2003.
  • The seizure, on March 23, 2007 ,of British sailors in the Shatt al-Arab.
  • The seizure, on January 12, 2016,of ten U.S. sailors off Farsi island.

In each case, Iranian diplomats initially denied responsibility or blamed other for precipitating the crisis. In each case, Western diplomats dismissed the episodes as ordered by rogue elements or, as Trump said, “someone . . . loose and stupid.” But, in each case, after the smoke had cleared, Iranian authorities celebrated the incident and promoted the officers involved. Those promotions made clear that the actions were directed and supported — by no means “rogue.”

Mohammad Ja’fari Sahraroudi, one of the 1989 gunmen, subsequently became a brigadier general in the Quds Force intelligence directorate. Ahmad Vahidi, the organizer of the 1994 bombing, ultimately became Iran’s defense minister. As for the 2016 episode, the supreme leader tweeted his support.

For 40 years, the Islamic Republic has waged war on the United States and, with very few exceptions, has paid very little military price for having done so. Trump may not want to stumble into military confrontation with Iran, especially after the experiences of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, but it would be naïve to suggest that the attack on the U.S. drone could not have been deliberate, endorsed from the very top of the Iranian system.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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