When Tokyo first learned of a U.S. “drone” downed by Iran while flying over the Strait of Hormuz last week, our initial reaction was rather obtuse. In Japan, drones are those available at shops in Akihabara. They usually have four small plastic rotor blades and can be remote-controlled from a long distance.
However, the drone shot down by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on June 20 was by no means a miniature UAV. It was a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk, a state-of-the-art surveillance aircraft as big as a jet fighter. In fact, RQ-4A is a 21st-century version of the U-2 spy plane.
On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 surveillance aircraft was shot down over Soviet territory by a Soviet Air Defense Forces SA-2 missile. The plane crashed but the pilot survived. He was quickly captured but returned to the United States two years later. The U-2 downing was so serious that a U.S.-Soviet summit meeting scheduled in Paris was canceled.
As I always say, human history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes. The IRGC commanders in Tehran are no amateurs and must be aware of the possible serious consequences of shooting down a U.S. spy plane. Why did Iran take the risk?
Honestly, I did not anticipate that the wise Iranians would overreact to America’s provocation. This was because I had overestimated until last week the Persian psyche of patience to avoid a suicidal game of chicken with Washington. What went wrong with my prediction? The following is my take on the big picture of this showdown.
1. Mutual deterrence worked.
Although the robust presence of American military forces in the Gulf contributes to the stability in the region, we should not underestimate the will and power of Iran to undermine the interests of the U.S. and its allies/friends, as we witness in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Therefore Iran has not militarily challenged the U.S. while Washington has not been able to easily twist Tehran’s arm, either. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed upon in 2015, no matter how incomplete it may be, was the natural result of such effective mutual deterrence between Iran and the U.S.
2. Trump has changed the rules.
This delicate power balance started to disappear when the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and the rules of the game has changed this May when Washington announced that it would terminate waivers in its sanctions on countries that purchase crude oil from Iran. Fortunately, Tehran is still abiding by the JCPOA so far.
3. Military escalation has been mutual.
The IRGC’s bellicose actions have never been unilateral. In April, the U.S. State Department designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization so Washington could impose severe sanctions. The IRGC responded by attacking four tankers in the Gulf region over the past several weeks.
As I hinted last week, the mine attack against a Japanese-owned tanker might have been conducted by a group of IRGC hardliners who did not wish their supreme leader to begin talks with the “Great Satan.” The drone downing might have been another attempt to kill any dialogue with Washington.
4. U.S. President Donald Trump’s “good cop and bad cop” tactics did not work.
If the above is true, Trump’s last-minute decision to call off a retaliatory military action against the IRGC air defense facilities may not have sent the right message to the Iranians. They know that the Trump administration is divided at the highest level, but are also aware that Trump is not a good cop.
5. A war with Iran only empowers the hardliners in Tehran.
The Trump administration’s national security team, including the vice president, are reportedly unanimous in favoring strong military action in retaliation for the drone downing. Such actions, however, only weaken the moderates in the Iranian regime and even encourage the hardliners to continue their reckless behavior.
6. Iran’s supreme leader must know the reality of the situation.
A possible solution to this crisis is for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to control the hardliners. He should know that the U.S. could literally obliterate the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, since Khamenei does not have enough politico-religious authority, he may not pressure his most faithful supporters.
In this regard, Europeans or Japan may hold the key. If London, Paris, Berlin or Tokyo could convince Khamenei to resume dialogue to avoid the collapse of his regime, the hardliners could be contained. This, however, may not happen given the domestic political environment surrounding those capitals.
7. We are creating a new modern Persian empire.
Persia/Iran has been a dominant regional power for 27 centuries. Since the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Shiite Islam seems to be representing the traditional nationalistic sentiments of the Iranians.
If we fail to send the right message to the political leaders in Tehran and convince them to reconsider the way they play this dangerous game, we will end up creating a highly desperate, frustrated and uncompromising modern Persian empire harboring unhealthy Iranian nationalism under the name of Shiite Islam.
Western historians may disagree with me but when I look at the U.S.-Iranian showdown, I am inclined to believe that this could be the beginning of a long hegemonic rivalry between the fourth Roman Empire, i.e., the U.S. and a modern Persian empire in the land of the Achaemenids, Sasanians and Safavids.
We should not underestimate the will and power of the Iranians. This new Persian empire may stay and control some of the neighboring Arab countries for a while and probably destabilize the energy-rich Gulf region and the rest of the Middle East. Tehran has now joined Beijing and Moscow and the empires are striking back again.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.