So what happened in the Persian Gulf?

Let’s take at face value the American report that two Iranian jet fighters attacked a US drone near Iran’s coast, and that the event occurred on November 1.

First, had the event been disclosed at the time, there would have been enormous political pressure on President Obama to fire back. That’s true even though the United States ought not send drones, even unarmed reconnaissance drones, into or near Iran at a moment of great tension. The United States says that the drone was operating in international waters, which may or not be true, since we already know that American drones enter Iran itself, as evidenced by the one malfunctioned and was captured deep inside Iranian territory near Afghanistan. Still, if then world had known of the Iranian foray against the drone last week, either Obama would have been compelled to counterattack—something that he undoubtedly would have avoided doing, given that the result might have been an escalating conflict—or he would have been subject to last-minute accusations that his administration is weak and feckless.

As The New York Times reports:

Had the Iranian attack been disclosed before Election Day, it is likely to have been viewed in a political context—interpreted either as sign of the administration’s weakness or, conversely, as an opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate leadership.

An aide to Mitt Romney already jumped in with his political spin, according to The Wall Street Journal:

“I think there was a reason that it didn’t come out until November 8th,” said Rich Williamson, who served as one of Mr. Romney’s chief foreign affairs advisers during the campaign, in an interview late Thursday. “I think that’s because the people on the other side thought it would have political ramifications. It would raise issues they didn’t want to address.”

So what were the Iranians up to? Since it seems more and more likely that talks between Iran and the P5+1 will resume soon, perhaps even a direct, public dialogue between Iran and the United States, it might be that hardliners in Iran opposed to the talks tried to provoke a clash. The UN announced yesterday that Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency will resume talks on December 13. Or, it could be that Iran’s top leadership decided—dangerously, it must be added—to make a show of toughness in advance of those talks. Or perhaps some commander with an itchy trigger-finger went rogue. (It’s long been argued by many experts on the Persian Gulf that the United States and Iran ought to have an incidents-at-sea hot line and a resolution process to avoid having a single incident escalate to real conflict.)

Speaking of the Persian Gulf, the spokesman for the Defense Department could not have been more ham-handed and provocative by repeatedly referring to the “Arabian Gulf.” It’s called the Persian Gulf everywhere, on maps, in the media, etc. But George Little, in discussing the event, said yesterday:

I can confirm that on November 1st, at approximately 4:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, an unarmed, unmanned MQ-1 U.S. military aircraft, conducting routine surveillance over the Arabian Gulf, was intercepted by Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot Aircraft and was fired upon with guns.


We have communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters, over the Arabian Gulf, consistent with longstanding practice.

At least they’re communicating. Or let’s hope. The Obama administration doesn’t want war with Iran. But wars happen, sometimes, even when you aren’t looking for one.

For more on drone warfare, check out “Beyond Bayonets and Battleships.”