Iran, U.S.: Iran's Downing of a U.S. Drone Invites a Military Response

4 MINS READJun 20, 2019 | 17:31 GMT
The Big Picture

As the U.S. has upped its sanctions pressure on Iran, Tehran has proved it is willing to respond militarily. The downing of a U.S. drone by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps increases the likelihood of a U.S. military response, but questions remain over the scale of its reaction.

What Happened

Iran shot down a U.S. BAMS-D strategic surveillance drone June 20. While the Iranians assert that the drone breached their airspace, the U.S. insists the drone was in international airspace and that the downing was unprovoked. 

Why It Matters

The Iranian action is the latest in a pattern of attacks involving Iran and the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf region. This time, the Iranians have destroyed a strategic UAV system that costs between $100 million to $200 million, depriving the United States of a significant and valuable asset. These factors significantly raise the possibility of a U.S. military response.

What Happens Next

If the U.S. does move forward with a military action related to the latest incident, it would most likely be limited to a proportional response given U.S. President Donald Trump's aversion to seeing a major U.S. conflict in the Middle East start on his watch. The most likely target set for a U.S. proportional strike includes the assets or bases that the Iranians have used to conduct their recent aggressive operations, including attacks around the Strait of Hormuz.

These include the surface-to-air missile batteries that shot down the U.S. drone; the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval units that reportedly attached limpet mines to two tankers; and the bases they came from, like the Jask naval base. The United States could also respond by targeting Iranian aircraft or drones. A more aggressive response might involve U.S. strikes on regional IRGC command centers affiliated with operations in the area, as well as on various other bases and garrisons, but this would probably not represent a proportional response. Beyond that, the U.S. target set could spiral all the way up to Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

The possibility that a cycle of U.S.-Iranian attacks and counterattacks has begun is very real, with significant negative regional and global energy and economic ramifications.

Given that even a limited response has a significant potential to occur in Iranian territory, the risk is high that Iran would in turn respond with further attacks, though Tehran would likely limit its counterattacks to avoid triggering a disastrous war. There is thus a very real possibility that a cycle of U.S.-Iranian attacks and counterattacks has begun, a cycle that could inflict significant regional and global energy and economic damage.
Given this increased risk of conflict, regional actors in Iran's immediate neighborhood are no doubt bracing for potential blowback. In a trip planned before the drone incident, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook is traveling to the Arab Gulf states for talks, presumably to align the U.S. position on the issue with that of its allies, while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is traveling to the United Arab Emirates for meetings that will include talks on the subject of Persian Gulf tensions.

Most Arab Gulf states host U.S. military bases to help guarantee their national security, but in the event of a conflict with Iran, these could become targets. Already, the United Arab Emirates, which has a long coastline along the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, is in a high state of readiness. The United States, meanwhile, announced earlier in the week that it would be adding 1,000 troops to the tens of thousands it already has stationed in the region to help face the Iran threat.

Dates to Watch

June 20-unspecified: U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook travels to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for diplomatic talks.
June 23: U.S. national security adviser John Bolton will be in Israel for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Week of June 24 - unspecified: Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper will attend meetings of NATO ministers of defense in Brussels.

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