Why Iran’s Capture of a “U.S. Drone” Matters — to Iran

The so-called downing of the ScanEagle is a welcome respite to a spate of bad domestic news—and perhaps a potential fig-leaf for policy shifts

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AL-ALAM / Handout / AFP

An image grab taken from Iran's state television Al-Alam is said to show U.S. drone that penetrated its airspace over Gulf waters, Dec. 4, 2012.

Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards claimed to have “hunted down” an American drone over Iranian airspace on Tuesday, but there may be a lot of internal politics involved in the all-out propaganda fest launched on state media to declare Tehran’s military prowess in the Persian Gulf. For its part, the United States Navy said none of its drones in the region were missing.

State television, as well as Iran’s Arabic and English language networks, broadcast images of Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ naval forces, inspecting the drone before a large map of the Gulf bearing the text: “We shall trample on the U.S.” Fadavi said the ScanEagle drone, roughly the size of a seagull, was hunted down after violating Iranian airspace. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, said the country had warned the United States against “invading our territories,” and said would use the drone as evidence in its complaint to international organizations.

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Iranian officials used the alleged intrusion throughout the day to highlight what they called America’s spying activity against Iran, effectively turning the media conversation into a celebration of the Guards’ strength and focusing public attention away from a host of thorny subjects the regime has struggled with recently. Between the collapse of its currency, a sharp warning from the United States against Tehran’s ally Syria, open rifts between factions of its own regime, and the embarrassing death of a blogger under torture, Iran has faced unusually intense pressure in just the past month. The capital itself has been officially shut down for two days, choked by extreme air pollution. “The regime needs to change the topic,” says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. “The hype of the new ‘hunt’ might eclipse stories of other ‘hunts.'”

Without Washington’s confirmation of the seizure or definitive proof that the drone was American (a number of Persian Gulf nations also run ScanEagle drones), it is difficult to gauge whether the incident marks an escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran. Last December, Iran claimed to have brought down a RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealth CIA drone that American officials said had crashed landed in Iranian territory. Last month, the Pentagon said Iranian warplanes fired at an American Predator drone over the Persian Gulf. “[This] displays an Iranian sense of insecurity,” says Alireza Nader, an analyst with the RAND Corporation. “The regime perceives itself to be exposed and unable to protect its sovereign territory, including its air space.” What does remain clear in the case of Tuesday’s ScanEagle “capture” is how deeply Iran needed the story to advance its own narrative.

With Iran’s political establishment murmuring about the prospect of negotiations with the United States, a drone capture and bellicose talk about trampling America may seem at odds with any real intention of Tehran coming to the table. But some observers speculate that the saber rattling and elaborate media coverage may actually be the regime’s way of laying the groundwork for a historic shift. “The regime is clearly preparing public opinion for direct negotiations with the U.S.,” says Milani, who notes that in the past Iran’s policy turnarounds have been accompanied with virulent propaganda campaigns that promote just the opposite of what they are actually doing. “The regime needs to sell its negotiations with the U.S. as a victory, as Great Satan’s surrender to the regime.”

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But the opaque, unknowable workings of the Iranian regime could also suggest an opposite conclusion, Milani cautions. The faction within the Iranian establishment who have long itched for military confrontation with the United States or Israel may also be at work with the ScanEagle drone, creating low-level provocations that could easily ignite a wider conflict. “In the eyes of the security services, the allegedly captured drone is itself ‘proof’ of U.S. aggressive designs and supports their claim that the United States is ultimately not interested in peace and is only after regime change,” says Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, a researcher at Oxford University who specializes in modern Iranian politics. “It can be used to undermine foreign policy pragmatists intent on engaging the U.S.”

Whichever political forces were at work in the alleged siezure, it’s evident that Iranian officials are using the moment to stop and catch a breath. In recent days, the country’s parliament has led an inquiry into the death of a blogger in custody, and has summoned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a grilling over the perilous state of the economy, only to call off those plans after a rebuke from the Supreme Leader that infighting played into the hands of the enemy. Now parliament has invited the naval commanders who led the drone’s capture to appear for special commendation. Ebrahim AqaMohammadi, a member of the parliament’s national security commission, told the semiofficial Fars News Agency that the action against the drone “demonstrated Iran’s deterrent power to the world once again.”

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