Last week an American predator drone operating in the Persian Gulf was the target of a failed interception attempt by Iranian fighter aircraft, leading to a tense confrontation between two of the largest players in the region. Though there was no fire exchanged between either the Iranian warplane or the American jets escorting the predator, the confrontation is indicative of the high tensions between the American and Iranian militaries, whose assets have faced off against one another in the sea and in the air.
The confrontation of an American drone by Iran is nothing new. In November, an Iranian warplane fired upon a predator drone conducting a reconnaissance mission off Iran’s coast, and an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel drone was brought down by Iranian ground forces in late 2011. Iranian speedboats operating under the Islamic Republic’s feared Revolutionary Guard unit have repeatedly approached American naval vessels working to secure the Strait of Hormuz.
These efforts at confrontation and interception echo 20th century era Cold War tactics, in which American and Soviet bombers and submarines would inch up to the borders of their enemies, only to be intercepted by fighter aircraft or destroyers. Though there was never any shooting, the extremely close contact was a physical manifestation of the political posturing between the two foes.
This game of high-stakes chicken, however, carries with it tremendous risk. A purposeful attempt to down an American drone by an Iranian aircraft would now be met with defensive maneuvers by American escort planes. Such action could easily spiral out of control given the non-existence of diplomatic communication between the United States and Iran, leading to ever-increased hostilities in what is one of the world’s most important commercial and oil transit arteries, the Strait of Hormuz.
Though the risk of escalation is always present within these sorts of aerial interceptions, the probability of such an event leading to any major conflict is low. Given that Iran has currently captured a number of American aerial assets, ranging in sophistication from lowly ship-operated drones to the secretive and stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel, it is difficult to imagine how the shooting down of a predator reconnaissance drone would lead to a significant retaliation by the U.S.
What is more disturbing, however, are the implications this event may bear for both the militarization of the Strait of Hormuz as well as for Iranian domestic politics. Though the U.S. Navy and Air Force patrol the Strait of Hormuz to keep it clear of pirates and open to commercial traffic, Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strait by placing so many aircraft and land-based missiles on its southern coast that no insurance company would be willing to underwrite commercial vessels traversing the straits. If Iran feels that these reconnaissance flights are an acute threat, the presence of new weapons to counter them may deter maritime shipping in the straits and impact regional economies. Further, as Iranian military leaders have appeared on state television and media to hawk their victories over downed American aircraft, the possibility of a downed American predator would prove enticing to Iranian propagandists, who may utilize such an event as a rally-around-the flag event.
While neither side may view these flights as particularly dangerous, the risk of an accidental shoot-down would bring about severe consequences both for American pride as well as the security of the Straits of Hormuz.