The stealth surveillance aircraft that fell to ground in Iran has been called “bat-winged,” but it looks more like a boomerang. It remains to be seen if it will boomerang, too, as did the famous U-2 flight over the Soviet Union back in the cold war.
It ought to be no surprise that the United States is spying on Iran. Gathering data on Iran’s nuclear program is pretty much a core mission of the CIA, the NSA and the other members of the intelligence alphabet. As John Pike points out, satellites are useful for many, many goals, but to maintain a close-up view of what’s going in and out of buildings and bunkers, a surveillance drone is better.
But the worrisome part of this, admittedly fueled more by the breathless media coverage of the downed drone, which was reportedly 140 miles inside Iranian territory, is the idea that the United States is escalating its covert war against Iran and, indeed, preparing to use the “military option.” It is, in fact, highly unlikely that the United States will go to war against Iran. Let us count the reasons: first, it would be catastrophically counterproductive, hardening Iran’s hardliners, undermining its Green Movement and other opposition forces and driving its nuclear program deep underground. Second, it might unleash a regional conflagration if Iran decided to strike back, overtly or covertly, against the United States and its regional allies. Third, it would be illegal and contrary to international law to launch an unprovoked attack against Iran, which would leave the United States isolated, bereft of many allies, angering Russia and China and pushing Iran into North Korea-like self-sufficiency and greater authoritarianism. Fourth, it would gravely threaten the world economy, with skyrocketing oil prices, removing Iran’s substantial exports from the market. It’s possible to add to this list.
In other words, it would be insane and self-defeating.
Many, many strategists in Washington have essentially given up trying to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, if that’s what it wants to do, and instead are busily developing plans to “contain” or box in Iran if it goes nuclear and to deal with it much as the United States dealt with the Soviet Union and then China when they joined the nuclear club.
But, quoting current and former US officials, the Washington Post tells us today  that there is a “growing belief within the Obama administration that covert action and carefully choreographed economic pressure may be the only means of coercing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.” It cites “the administration’s shift toward a more confrontational approach—one that also includes increased arms sales to Iran’s potential rivals in the Middle East as well as bellicose statements by US officials and key allies.”
In recent weeks, there’s been a flurry of speculation about covert action against Iran. The explosion that devastated a rocket facility west of Tehran in November and killed a general in charge of Iran’s missile program is rumored to have been the result of some US or Israeli covert action, although it’s hard to imagine how such a spectacular bombing could have been pulled off. Still, there have been violent, and dangerous, incidents in both directions recently, including the Iranian seizure of the British embassy in Tehran and the reported Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
As Trita Parsi wrote in The Atlantic : “Two incidents that occurred on Sunday [December 4]—Iran's claim of a shoot-down of a US drone, and an explosion outside the British embassy in Bahrain—may have been unrelated. But they appear to add to growing evidence that an escalating covert war by the West is under way against Iran, and that Tehran is retaliating with greater intensity than ever.” And Parsi added: “Asked whether the United States, in cooperation with Israel, was now engaged in a covert war against Iran's nuclear program that may include the Stuxnet virus, the blowing-up of facilities and the assassination or kidnapping of scientists, one recently retired US official privy to up-to-date intelligence would not deny it.”
There’s little doubt that there is a covert campaign against Iran underway, and actions such as the computer worm and the assassination of scientists are undeniable—though with “deniability.” But it’s ludicrous to think that covert action can halt the Iranian nuclear enrichment program or, even more ridiculous, topple the regime.
What it can do is set both countries onto a path along which one spark—say, a clash at sea in the Persian Gulf or the seizure of some NATO forces by Iran—could escalate to war. Ever-tougher sanctions, which again aren’t likely to slow Iran’s nuclear program, will make things worse. And as a whole, such a campaign might push iran to take greater and greater risks in pushing back, using terrorist groups, support for Shiite forces in the Gulf and Iraq, and actions such as the invasion of the UK embassy.
So that would be a true boomerang. Compelling Iran to halt its nuclear program is a policy that won't work. But
pushing Iran toward war, in fact, might very well succeed.