Mikhael Smits, David Adesnik: Drone attack – Iran needs to know it will pay a price for its risky provocations

Will the U.S. launch a military strike against Iran to retaliate for that nation’s downing of an American surveillance drone Thursday?

We don’t know, but U.S. forces are in position and ready to attack if ordered by President Trump. And of course, no one knows how Iran would respond to a U.S. attack if it takes place.

In a story based on unidentified sources, the New York Times reported that Trump ordered strikes against a small number of Iranian military targets but canceled plans at the last minute Thursday night.


“The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said,” the Times reported. “Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.”

The U.S. military and intelligence community have likely identified the most suitable targets for a potential counterattack against Iran, or determined whether a different type of pressure will be most effective.

American economic sanctions have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy – one reason Iran is trying to stare down the Trump administration. The U.S. could push even harder or on the sanctions, or perhaps President Trump will select a covert response.

Iran has shown that it likes to escalate one notch at time, testing just how far it can go without provoking a response from American forces it cannot hope to match in a direct fight.

The important thing is that the U.S. must make clear to Iran that the Islamic Republic does not have a free hand to attack the U.S. or its allies.

We don’t know who leaked the story to The New York Times about the supposedly canceled U.S. attack on Iran, but the leak may have been a deliberate attempt by Trump administration officials to send a loud and clear warning to Iran without actually engaging in armed conflict.

Iran bragged Thursday that it shot down the U.S. drone near the Persian Gulf. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps called the attack a “clear message to America.”

But even before the report of a canceled U.S. attack on Iran, President Trump had a clear message of his own for the radical Shiite regime in Tehran: “They're going to find out they made a very big mistake,” the president told reporters in the White House.

Trump also told reporters he had not yet decided whether the U.S. will launch retaliatory strikes to punish Tehran for what the U.S. military described as an “unprovoked attack” in international airspace more than 20 miles from land.

Iran claims that the U.S. drone was in Iranian airspace, but this denial is no more credible than Iranian protests of innocence that followed last week’s attacks on a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Despite U.S. surveillance footage that showed an Iranian vessel pulling up alongside one of the two damaged tankers last week, foreign leaders demanded additional proof. It seems they now have what they were looking for.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel now says there is “strong evidence” Iran was behind the attacks.

In Washington, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., -- the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee – confirmed that “there’s no question that Iran is behind the attacks” and said, “the evidence is very strong and compelling.”

This pattern of Iranian aggression makes it essential for the U.S. to show Tehran that Iran will pay a price for its dangerous provocations. Whereas last week’s attack targeted foreign ships, this time Iran knowingly went directly after an American military aircraft. Its decision to attack an unmanned aircraft, however, may reflect a careful, high-stakes calculation.

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly communicated to Iran that if it killed a single American there would be a punishing U.S. response. Thursday’s Iranian attack may have deliberately stopped just short of Pompeo’s line.

This should not be surprising. Iran has shown that it likes to escalate one notch at time, testing just how far it can go without provoking a response from American forces it cannot hope to match in a direct fight.

This is one important lesson of Iranian-sponsored attacks on American troops during the war in Iraq, which cost hundreds of American lives. When the U.S. sought to avoid a confrontation, Iran turned up the temperature. When U.S. forces pushed back, Iran retreated.

So far, despite stern warnings from President Trump after previous attacks, Iran has not paid a price. Rather than waiting for the U.S. to act, the Iranians struck again by shooting down the U.S. drone.

There is every reason to believe this pattern will continue if the U.S. does not match the firm words of President Trump and top administration officials with firm action.

Of course, the Trump administration does not want a war in the Gulf, so its response should be carefully calibrated. This likely explains why the president seemed to offer Tehran a face-saving way out of a confrontation of its own making.

In reference to the attack on the U.S. drone, Trump told reporters Thursday that it was “hard to believe it was intentional,” speculating that the attack was a mistake made by an Iranian officer “who was loose and stupid.”

There are two problems with this approach.

First, Iran is a highly centralized dictatorship. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls all the shots. No one would think of shooting down a U.S. drone without permission.

Second, if the U.S. gives Iran a pass on the grounds of a supposed mistake by one person “who was loose and stupid,” the lesson will be that America would rather make excuses for its enemy than confront aggression. The likely result would be more Iranian aggression.

The U.S. is prepared for a conflict with Iran if it erupts. The Trump administration has increased U.S. combat power in the Persian Gulf, approving a request from the U.S. commander in the region to deploy an additional 1,000 military personnel.

In addition to holding Iran accountable, it is important to keep in mind the strategic value of the skies and seas where this conflict is playing out. More than 20 percent of the world’s seaborne oil moves through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

In April, Iran threatened to close the strait, something it often threatens to intimidate its neighbors and the U.S.

America is now the world’s leading producer of oil, but if Iran were able to close the strait, the action could still lead to global oil shortages that would hurt American consumers and consumers in other nations.

Importantly, the skies above the strait give the world a valuable look into Iran’s malign behavior. Iran knows the stakes, and has attacked drones to prevent the U.S. from capturing evidence.

Earlier this month, Yemeni rebels known as Houthis who are backed by Iran shot down a high-altitude drone with Iranian support. Just last week, Iran fired at and missed at U.S. drone over the site of the oil tanker attacks.

Iran may also have been hoping its own forces could recover the remains of the drone they shot down. U.S. drones have advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities, and Tehran wants to acquire U.S. technology for its own drone program.


Losing a drone is also expensive for the U.S. Variants of the drone shot down by Iran cost $120 million to $200 million, making it the most expensive unmanned aircraft in the American arsenal.

The important thing is that Iran immediately feels, even if it does not yet understand, that it does not have a free hand to attack the U.S. or its allies. Actions by both sides in the coming days and weeks will determine if the Iranian attack on the U.S. drone will escalate into a far more serious military confrontation.

David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter at @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.