Drone wars: Iran takes on the U.S., sparking concern

The Obama administration asked the Islamic Republic to return the drone, but Iranian authorities declined

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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In a short video of a ceremony that occurred during an unexpected visit, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits in front of an Iranian-made drone copy of the advanced CIA spy drone, the RQ-170 spy plane. Khamenei is filmed listening to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps general explain the functions of the new technology.

The pictures of this unveiling ceremony have been posted on the supreme leader’s website as well. The whole process of developing an Iranian spy drone has been eye opening and intriguing. Iranian leaders claim that the U.S. drone was not shot down but was rather commandeered in 2011. As the Iranian Tasnim News Agency reported: “The drone was brought down by the Iranian Armed Forces’ electronic warfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it.”

The drone could have been flying over Iran territories for two reasons. The drone was either related to a CIA reconnaissance mission that dealt with the intelligence and military community in Afghanistan, or it was truly spying on Iran as Iranian authorities claim.

If Khamenei is so proud to have this spying technology, then do Iranian leaders really expect regional countries to believe that Tehran does not want to have access to weapons with nuclear capabilities?

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The drone was found in city of Kashmar, located in the eastern part of Iran near the border of Afghanistan and the river Sish Taraz. There are no significant nuclear or military sites to spy on in this part of the Islamic Republic.

The Obama administration asked the Islamic Republic to return the drone, but Iranian authorities declined. After commandeering and landing the drone, Iranian engineers and experts reverse-engineered the U.S. drone in order to copy its technology. They also released a YouTube video showing footage of the decoding of the American drone and the countries in which this drone had been operating, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Iran’s claim to have replicated the U.S. drone comes at a time when drone policy and the usage of drones by the Obama administration have become a crucially debated topic in Washington.

The unintended consequences: analysis of this euphoria

First of all, the questions of whether the Iranian authorities’ claim that they have created an exact copy of the downed U.S. drone is open to debate. It is almost impossible to verify their claim unless full access to Iran’s drone and its capabilities is allowed to experts.

On the other hand, the reaction of the Iranian authorities, particularly Khamenei and IRGC, reveals several issues left unresolved amidst the rush to celebrate this development.

Iran’s supreme leader is a highly secretive political figure who avoids giving interviews to journalists or appearing on media and TV. The fact that he made a public and televised visit to observe the drone and the notion that even his website put up images of the drone and his visit is surprising and compelling.

The Iranian leader’s hasty action to celebrate this development and their boasting about having a spying drone reveals several underlying political intentions that they failed to foresee while rushing into this ceremony.

This issue reveals that Iran’s supreme leader and the IRGC truly believe that this development is a sign of crucial progress in Iran’s military and defense capabilities.

But the more fundamental issue that emerges is if Khamenei is so proud to have this spying technology, then do Iranian leaders really expect regional countries and the international community to believe that Tehran (and particularly the IRGC), do not want to have access to weapons with nuclear capabilities?

Why would Iranian authorities reveal such excitement through their own state media for having developed a machine that can spy on other countries in the region? After all, what is the purpose of a drone other than secretly targeting and killing people, along with spying on the nations?

If we look at the region, the countries that Iran could spy on with this drone are primarily Gulf Arab countries to the south of Iran, including Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even Iraq.

This excitement at having the capability to spy on other sovereign nation-states comes in contradiction to the publicized ideology of the government. The supreme leader has repeatedly pointed out that the Islamic Republic is against nuclear capabilities, weapons, or such military equipments and that these issues run against the ideology of Shiism.

The Islamic Republic and the U.S.: not natural allies

In addition, Iran’s supreme leader and IRGC generals are attempting to send a signal to the United States that Iran has reached a self-sufficient and independent level when it comes to military and technological capabilities; that it can deter the United States, Western and regional powers’ objectives in the region.

This indicates that the deep mistrust between Washington and Tehran will continue, even as the recent nuclear talks in Vienna are showing encouraging signs for striking a final nuclear deal.

In other words, even if a final nuclear deal is reached within the next few months before the July 20 deadline, the Islamic Republic and the United States will not turn into geopolitical allies. As long as Iran supports regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah, pursues its regional hegemonic ambitions, thwarts other countries’ foreign policy objectives in the region, and is governed by the ideology of the supreme leader and IRGC generals, Washington and Tehran cannot be natural allies.

The development of the drone will not affect the progress of the final nuclear deal. The final nuclear deal appears to have no venue other than to succeed. This is due to the fact that Western powers do not have plan B.

Iranian leaders deeply believe that the United States is attempting to overthrow the government of the Islamic Republic. In addition, Iran’s supreme leader gains his legitimacy and power from those constituents and institutions that view Washington as a great evil.

Finally, although Iranian leaders point out that they do not have any regional hegemonic ambitions, this exhilaration among Iranian authorities about developing a spy drone sends a strong signal about Iran’s objectives for tipping the balance of power in the region in its favor, challenging other regional powers thus ratcheting up the security dilemma in the region, boasting about Tehran’s spying capabilities and seeking regional hegemonic superiority.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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