On December 4th Iran surprised the world with claims that it had downed and captured an American surveillance drone. At first, these claims were met with skepticism, that is until Iran finally unveiled video footage of the actual drone. The video depicted the seemingly undamaged RQ-170 Sentinel stealth aircraft. Iranian officials claimed that its forces electronically commandeered the aircraft approximately 140 miles from the Afghan border and were then able to safely land it inside Iran. Considering the little damage to the drone, BBC security correspondent saysthis is likely to be true. Iranian officials then acknowledged the wealth of technological information that could be garnered from the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the United States denied Iran’s assertions that the drone was either shot or brought down by a cyber-attack. Explanations for the occurrence claim it was more likely a technical failure that led to a crash. The drone was actually being operated by the CIA, which is said to have possession of almost a dozen such aircraft, and has been using them over the past four years to conduct surveillance deep inside Iran, most likely of nuclear weapons. The use of these drones mirrors the Obama administration’s more confrontational posture towards Iran in recent months. Obama, in 2009, famously tried to reach out to Iran to improve relations, but there is growing skepticism within the administration over the effectiveness of these diplomatic overtures and increased economic sanctions. Increased arm sales to Iran’s neighbors along with threatening statements by U.S. officials have accompanied this change in posture. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, has reaffirmed that all options remain on the table, including use of the military, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. U.S. officials have noted the administration’s strategy is to ratchet up the diplomatic pressure while increasing covert operations with Iran with the hopes of coercing Iran to abandon its nuclear activities.
The U.S. also fears a dangerous setback to its advanced stealth technology programs. Iran could “reverse-engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint” and the highly advanced optics technology. Additionally, Iran could sell the technology to Russia and China, something that U.S. officials dread. Iran has come to view this as a volatile propaganda tool as well, as the drone was presented in front of two banners: one proclaiming “The U.S. cannot do a damn thing” and the other depicting the American flag with skulls instead of stars. Iran has also called on the UN to denounce the “provocative and covert operations” of the U.S. and calling it “tantamount to an act of hostility.” Iran also summoned the Swiss ambassador to protest the “invasion” of Iranian airspace. Iran and the U.S. have severed diplomatic ties; thus, Switzerland’s embassy represents American interests in Iran.
The implications for international law are expansive. The U.S. is and has been using stealth aircraft within the sovereign territory of Iran to collect intelligence, and it is also threatening that further military options are possible due to Iran’s continued refusal to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Iran has already denounced the act as “tantamount to an act of hostility” using language that seems to imply that the U.S. is already using or almost using illegal use of force. The question remains, however, whether the U.S.’ actions are justified in light of Iran’s own disregard for international law based on its refusal to abandon its nuclear program and oppressive treatment of its citizens.