Analysis: Iran and the Drone Standoff

If Iran plays its cards wisely, it may gain more prestige than the US out of this incident … Iran, the scapegoat for Trump’s goals, has admirably held its ground in the face of a greater power.

The world breathed a sigh of relief when President Trump called off US airstrikes on three Iranian targets this Friday in response to the shooting down of the US Global Hawk surveillance drone. “I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” he said, adding that he was “in no hurry” to confront Iran. It is rather ironic that the US should present the sparing of human lives as its key point in calling off the attack when it has profited by selling millions of dollars’ worth of arms to different states involved in regional conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. When trying to understand US behavior it is worth considering two factors: Trump’s short-sighted focus on re-election coupled with the fact he’s a businessman in the guise of a politician.

Trump is trying to strike what he believes is a “better deal” while also benefitting powerful American military interests. But the ongoing standoff is increasing global volatility, making war almost inevitable. It is also no secret that the US accounts for 34% of all global arms sales selling more than double the amount of weapons than Russia (the second largest exporter of arms). With such a lucrative industry in place and Trump’s business acumen, it stands to reason he would highly benefit by creating a situation that would escalate conflict till just below the threshold of war inspiring enough fear and tension for states to buy arms from the US. On the surface Trump appears to be making good on his promises: a tougher stance on Iran while also not committing any ground troops in foreign lands. He is well aware that the age of conventional warfare is over: the US has been striking back by employing sanctions, engaging in surveillance via drones and launching cyber-attacks.

Most recently, the US has attempted to disable Iran’s weapons systems so that it is no longer capable of launching missiles against a US target. Additionally, Iran has a strong conventional military force consisting of 350,000 soldiers, another specialized 125,000 members of the IRGC and 20,000 navy personnel. Therefore the US would do well to remain wary of a conventional attack given its past debacles in both Afghanistan and Vietnam that prove an understanding of the local terrain can be more important than the possession of advanced ammunition; any forgetting of this fact will inevitably lead to the deaths of thousands of US troops.

Another important key point to note is the US is no longer a superpower which can force every state to conform to its wishes. All European nations have expressed disapproval at Trump’s actions while Russia and China have been more outspoken in accusing Washington of provocation with the latter’s main concern being its economic investments. It is also important to remember India has invested heavily in the Chabahar port and while the Trump administration has exempted India from sanctions relating to the port, it is likely that India’s economic interests will be bound to suffer. Also, if Iran manages to use the port as lifeline to resume imports of essential items or exports of oil it is likely the US will crackdown irrespective of its Indian ally.

As of now the US is fervently trying to portray Iranian aggression as one-sided when Iran shot down a drone in what the US claims are “international waters.” Iran, however, has contested the claim stating the drone breached its territory, and that too, after two warnings had been issued making Iran’s response a defensive one. Tehran is trying to use this point to highlight its restraint in addition to its choice to spare American lives when it chose not to shoot down a manned aircraft (also flying within its territory) carrying 35 Americans. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had expressed his willingness to provide evidence regarding the incident to the UN. However, the US has absolutely refused to acknowledge any Iranian attempts at rapprochement.

On Friday Brian Hooks, special representative on Iran also went so far as to say “Iran needs to meet diplomacy with diplomacy” but given recent statements, it appears the US agenda is not mediation, but provocation.

Iran, the scapegoat for Trump’s goals, has admirably held its ground in the face of a greater power.

It has maintained a firm stance on the crisis reiterating its position that can neatly be summarized by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi’s tweet, “Diplomacy with diplomacy… war with firm defense.” Iran’s strategic patience is wearing thin as exemplified by timing of its execution of a man arrested in 2010 for spying on behalf of the CIA. It is vital that Iran not give in to US provocation as any of its responses/actions may be twisted to serve the US narrative.

Given that Iran and the US are locked at tense tipping point, all states recognize that de-escalation is the only path forward to solving the crisis. It may appear that at last Iran and the US have decided to switch from the twitter battleground to the UN as the US has called for a meeting of the Security Council on Monday to discuss the issue.

However, no matter what agreements may be reached, Trump’s comments from dismissing the drone attack to “obliterating” Iran to calling off a military strike all within the short span of two days is reflective of his changeability resulting in a growing trust-deficit between the two states justifying Iranian reluctance to negotiate with the US.

In the face of such volatility perhaps Iran’s firm stance aimed all along to drive the issue to the UN hoping for agreements which would be backed by strong international guarantors. Irrespective, if Iran plays its cards wisely, it may gain more prestige than the US out of this incident.

The author Urooj Hanafi has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences with a major in Political Science from IBA, Karachi. She is soon to enroll in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies in the University of Washington as a Fulbright scholar.


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Lamothe, D. (2019, June 21). The U.S. outguns Iran, but it faces painful realities in the event of a war. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Trump approved strikes on Iran but pulled back: Reports (2019, June 21). Al Jazeera. Retrieved from

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Filed under Cyber Warfare, Discussion, Drones, Iran, Nuclear Energy, Politics, The Middle East, Trump, United States

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