Iran’s capture of an American drone compels us to revisit some difficult, unwelcome but fundamental security issues. If Iran downed a sophisticated U.S. drone, as it claims, that would represent a monumental Iranian intelligence coup in learning how to override the drone’s command-and-control system and then guide it safely down to earth. That conclusion, if true, would force a rethinking of the U.S. intelligence campaign against Iran and, quite possibly, in Afghanistan, as it is likely Iran would share the secret with the Taliban, whom it has helped in the past.
If, however, the drone malfunctioned, as the Obama administration maintains and is more likely, Iran probably will learn those secrets with the help of Russian and Chinese technicians. Pakistan already, against U.S. objections, has transferred a stealth helicopter that crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden. We should expect no less of Iran. Then those countries, too, probably will learn how to override our drones and force us to rethink our use of drones for intelligence and as strike platforms.
Once Iran learns how to master these systems, it probably will have an improved capability with which to challenge foreign intelligence monitoring of its nuclear programs. Iran will have obtained a marvelous tool with which to enhance its reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities throughout the Gulf and Middle East. But beyond those negative outcomes for the United States, Israel, our allies in the Gulf and, potentially, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, this event also will have profoundly negative consequences in the Caspian basin and particularly Azerbaijan.
Every Central Asian state, as well as Azerbaijan, harbors suspicions about Iran. Tajikistan called home its students in Iranian religious establishments out of fear that they were being infected with a revolutionary Islamist indoctrination. None of the other Central Asian states wants Iran to be a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, nor do they support its nuclear program. They all suspect Iran’s potential for inciting insurgents and terrorists in their countries. Iran also has regularly thwarted efforts by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to expand energy production into the Caspian Sea.
But the most overt displays of Iranian power and threats have been employed against neighboring Azerbaijan, not least because Tehran suspects Baku of being pro-American and pro-Israeli, but also because it fears that Azerbaijan may seek to exploit the ethnic grievances of Iranian Azerbaijanis in northwestern Iran and detach the area from Iran with great power support. This is not a groundless fear, as the Soviet Union sought to do so in 1920-21 and 1945-46. Nevertheless, this fear of the Azerbaijani minority is more a pretext for Iran’s current threats against Azerbaijan than a rational basis for Iranian policy. Iran’s real fear is Azerbaijan’s support for the United States and Israel and its apprehension that Azerbaijan might become a platform for a U.S. operation against it.
In fact, Iran has been threatening Azerbaijan for more than a decade. Iran has staunchly supported Armenia’s conquest of undisputed Azerbaijani territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis to the point that Armenia regularly votes against sanctions on Iran in the United Nations. In 2001, Iran shot up an Azerbaijani oil-exploration platform in the Caspian Sea. Apart from blocking the legal resolution of that sea’s status, Iran regularly threatens Azerbaijan with invasion and other unspecified military action if it supports a U.S. base in its country and because of its close ties with Israel.
More recently, Iranian incitement is clearly behind the anti-government campaign by religiously inclined Shiites, who are protesting the government’s “anti-religious” policies. Whatever the merits of those policies and resistance to it, the evidence of Iran’s support for agitation and propaganda, its regular efforts to delegitimize the Azerbaijani government and continuing overt military threats against the regime are indisputable.
As Iran’s missile and satellite capabilities grow, and should it get a nuclear weapon, these threats become all the more frightening, whatever Tehran’s intentions may be. Iran’s acquisition of the reconnaissance, surveillance and potential strike capabilities that this drone and others like it possess adds immeasurably to its capabilities to threaten not only its Middle Eastern neighbors but its Central Asian and Caucasian neighbors.
The current assessment of the damage caused by the loss of this drone reminds policymakers and analysts that the threat posed by Iran is not just to the Middle East, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states but also to Iran’s northern neighbors and international security in general. Proliferation of this technology might not be as great a threat as an Iranian nuclear weapon, but it is hardly a small threat. Consequently, Iran’s likely mastery of this system would intensify significantly the threat in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The United States and those governments, too, must take that threat into account and respond to a visibly more dangerous situation.
Stephen Blank is a professor for the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. government.
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