Worry About Iran's Ayatollahs, Not the Drone


As if the U.S. intelligence community didn’t have enough to deal with amidst reports that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon, it now appears the Islamic Republic has one of our highly-classified reconnaissance drones.

The incident is no doubt troubling, but the concern is not necessarily that Iran now has access to the aircraft’s sophisticated technology. Rather, evidence that a U.S. stealth drone was operating over Iranian airspace is the perfect rallying cry for the country’s leaders to galvanize the public at a time when relations between the two are particularly low.

Drones have crashed over enemy territory before, but the RQ-170 Sentinel is one of the most advanced in the U.S. arsenal. Neither the Pentagon nor the C.I.A. has disclosed the drone’s full capability, but, unlike the more mainstream Predator drones that buzz the skies over Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the Sentinel is reportedly outfitted with state-of-the art stealth technology, making it almost invisible to radar. It also has a sophisticated computer system that is heavily encrypted, lest it fall into enemy hands. 

How exactly such an advanced weapon fell out of the sky remains nebulous, with the Iranians claiming they shot down the drone, while U.S. officials maintain the aircraft suffered a technical malfunction. In the latter case, it’s a glitch the developer, Lockheed Martin, should probably address promptly.

Since the story broke earlier this week, analysts have expressed concern that while the drone’s technology won’t be of much use to Iran, they may instead try to sell parts of the aircraft’s systems to its allies, including China and Russia. Others disagree.

“I don’t think this is a dagger pointed at the heart of democracy,” Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst at the Lexington Institute, told the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of information about this aircraft was already known by foreign military intelligence officials.” John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, agreed: “The cat’s out of the bag with stealth technology. The materials have already been widely disseminated. One little drone isn’t going to make a difference either way.”

The real risk of a downed U.S. drone is the perception of foreign meddling, intentional or not, at a time when Iran is facing severe internal divisions. Much has been made of the on-going feud between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both of whom remain unpopular, particularly among liberals and independents, following the handling of the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

In a thoughtful op-ed in the International Herald Tribune in November, retired brigadier general John H. Johns noted that the U.S. ought “to avoid steps that would unite these political blocs.” He added that Iran has been “effectively isolated and weakened by the one-two punch of smart sanctions and the democratic winds sweeping through the region.”

Johns was cautioning against bombing Iran if efforts to deter its nuclear program failed, but the use of U.S. drones over Iranian airspace is just as problematic. The intelligence drones collect is valuable, but an incident like this poses real political risks. The regime now has a tool to channel public disaffection with the government toward public outrage at perceived American aggression. Surely the Ayatollahs are watching what is happening in Syria, Iran’s closest regional ally, and will find a way to stem public discontent by any means necessary.

The security of the U.S., and that of the broader Middle East, will ultimately depend on our ability to isolate and contain a deeply divided Iran, and accidents with faulty drones do us an immense disservice. 

Keep the drones to a minimum. If we must use them, make sure they work. The last thing the U.S. can afford right now is yet another conflict in the Middle East. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons