The shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone by Iran is the latest escalation in weeks of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran. We have now entered new terrain, where the likelihood of either side standing down seems to be evaporating by the hour.
A key ingredient in the current volatility is the brazen language used by leaders on both sides. Iran has used this sort of rhetoric for decades, but rarely has a U.S. commander in chief been as prepared to engage on that level as our current president — and that should make everyone nervous.
Tehran contends that the drone trespassed into Iranian airspace. The United States says the drone was shot down over international waters.
For his part, President Trump tweeted Thursday morning that “Iran made a very big mistake” by shooting down the drone. Asked how the United States planned to respond to the shootdown and if it would lead to war, Trump said, “You’ll find out.”
But until now he has called for new talks with Iran, despite the bluster.
On the other hand, one of the Iranian regime’s favorite slogans for the past 40 years has been “America can’t do a damn thing against us.”
It was first uttered by the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in reference to the hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days, defying international law and forever branding Iran as an irrational and unpredictable nemesis in the eyes of the U.S. political establishment, news media and, by extension, much of the American public.
In its latest game of rhetorical chicken, Iran might be outmatched. The dangers of its decades of chest-thumping and sloganeering could finally catch up with the regime.
The truth is the United States has an arsenal of weapons — military, economic, political and cultural — that Iran cannot and will never be able counter. Khomeini knew it then. His successor Ali Khamenei and the Iranian people know it now, even as they muddle through a period of serious economic contraction caused by crushing U.S. sanctions on its oil industry.
But the promise of the regime lies in the false hope that, in the end, God will deliver the ultimate death blow to the country’s enemies. And even if he doesn’t, those who die in the process will be fast-tracked to heaven.
Most Iranians today, though, have a very different worldview than the millions of young men who went to the front lines to become cannon fodder in the eight-year war Khomeini waged against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Few people in Iran would support a military conflict with an infinitely more powerful rival — especially not one in which they would almost certainly be subjected to destruction from the skies.
Key Iranian officials who spoke publicly on Thursday about the drone’s downing were actually quite measured compared with their own usual levels of bluster.
“The message is that the guardians of the borders of Islamic Iran will decisively respond to the violation of any stranger to this land. The only solution for the enemies is to respect the territorial integrity and national interests of Iran,” Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said on Thursday.
Juxtapose that with what he said when a U.S. vessel was caught in Iranian waters in January 2016, as the nuclear deal with Iran was being implemented.
“The Americans humbly admitted our might and power, and we freed the sailors after being assured that they had entered the Iranian waters unintentionally and we even returned their weapons,” Salami said at the time.
In both cases, despite the endless bravado, there is a subtle acknowledgment that Iran understands it can’t win a major confrontation and can only hope to defend itself when its borders are encroached upon. It’s a red line for Iran, because fighting invaders is perhaps the lone rallying cry left that will work with the Iranian public.
For as proud as Iranians can be of their long history, the people of that country have learned the hard way that in this life, at least, pragmatism is almost always a better bet.
I’m reminded of the last widely reported instance of Iran downing a U.S. drone. That was in 2011, but it provides an instructive lesson on the current moment and what many Iranians might privately be hoping for.
Iran’s state media almost immediately began to broadcast images of the unmanned aircraft on its airwaves to a nation that was growing incredulous to the regime’s flimsy claims of homegrown technical prowess.
Later, at the annual government-sponsored celebration marking the founding of the Islamic republic, a replica of the American drone was displayed above the crowd. This relatively minor achievement against the United States was being hailed as a national victory.
Strewn from the drone model was a banner with Khomeini’s favorite quote directed at the Great Satan.
But there was a catch. It had been mistranslated and instead read “American can do no wrong.”
It’s important to remember that our enmity with Iran isn’t new. Neither is it entirely unfounded. But ultimately, Iran does not pose a real threat to the United States. It should be beneath us to act as though it does.