The Iranian military shot down an American drone aircraft on Thursday, and neither side disputes that. Pretty much everything else about the incident is unclear, however, as is the rest of the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries.
Iran claims the drone was within its sovereign airspace, making the craft fair game to be shot down under international rules, but President Donald Trump claims to have conclusive proof from his intelligence sources that the aircraft was in neutral airspace, which makes the downing an arguable act of war. This further muddles an already muddled situation between the two countries, which is further complicated by the fact that both countries currently have very unpredictable leadership.
The problem started long before Trump way back in the administration of Jimmy Carter when a harsh theocratic dictatorship seized power in Iran, as far as we’re concerned, although they do have a plausible argument it started with America’s backing of the harsh but secular and America-friendly dictatorship of the Shahs way back in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. In any case, the first thing the theocratic dictatorship did when it took power was to take fifty-two American diplomats hostage, and hold them in inhumane conditions for 444 days until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and things between the two countries have been complicated ever since.
We concluded at the time, and to this day believe, that the hostages were released because the nutcase Iranian theocracy had concluded Reagan was going to be far tougher on them than Carter had been, and all of our Democratic friends were equally convinced that Reagan was just as willing to start a global conflagration with even the Soviet Union, so we still figure there’s something to be said for tough diplomacy. Reagan’s administration wound up trading arms with the Iranian theocracy for some hostages it and its terrorist gang proxies still held and using the extra profits to fund anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, on the other hand, and neither the sticks nor the carrots of the subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations have adequately solved the Middle Eastern problem.
With help from six of our most longstanding and militarily formidable European allies and the mighty combined weight of their economic sanctions President Barack Obama persuaded Iran to agree to a temporary shutdown or at least a shutdown of its nuclear weapons program. Critics such as ourselves argued at the time it was only temporary shutdown and arguably just a slowdown of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, and did nothing to curtail its intercontinental missile program or funding of terrorist gang proxies throughout the Middle East, or the nefarious meddling in every Middle Eastern crisis that popped up, and that given the western leverage a better deal could have been reached. All that still rings true, but Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and and despite his much-bragged about negotiating skill hasn’t yet delivered the promised better one, and things remain unsettled.
Trump has reimposed severe economic sanctions on Iran’s already struggling economy, but none of those six longstanding and militarily formidable European allies have followed suit, and without their combined economic weight and assured military alliance the Iranians are less likely to blink. Trump has been squabbling with all of our longstanding allies around the world ever since he took office, and nutcases though they are the Iranian theocrats have surely noticed, and they might also sense other signs of weakness.
Trump ran for office as a a tough guy who wouldn’t let America be pushed around, but he also ran as Vietnam War draft dodger who alleged President George W. Bush lied America into a Middle Eastern quagmire, even as he criticized Obama for his premature withdrawal from the Iraqi conflict that Bush had allegedly lied us into, and while in office his foreign policy has been similarly schizophrenic. Currently he’s got some old school Cold War Republican internationalists as Secretary of State and national security advisor, and for embarrassing reasons has no Secretary of Defense at all at the moment, yet he retains his cocksure and surprisingly risk-averse and isolationist instincts, and so far it’s led to a muddled message in the current crisis.
Trump “tweeted” that Iran had made a “very big mistake” by shooting down the drone, adding the usual exclamation mark at the end, but he later clarified that. Trump’s most ardent apologists always tell us we should take his rhetoric seriously but not literally, but in this case Trump explained that he was being literal rather serious. Trump explained he meant to say that Iran had made an actual mistake, with some trigger happy lower-ranking military officer launching the shoot down the $100 million yet unmanned drone without orders from the nutcase theocratic dictatorship, which is just one of those those things that happen in such a complicated world and no reason for nations to go to war.
Trump has also given credence to Iran’s explanations of a couple of attacks on oil tankers on the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran’s terrorist proxies have claimed credit for and which Iran has plausibly claimed it had nothing to do with. Trump’s old school Secretary of State and national advisor have blamed have blamed Iran for threatening a shipping lane crucial to the economies of our longstanding European allies and the rest of the world, but Trump himself has dismissed both incidents as “very minor,” and the self-described tough guy seems in no mood for a fight.
Which is probably for the best, given the current circumstances. We doubt that the nutcase theocratic regime in Iran is any more eager for a fight with the far more formidable United States military, as nutty as the theocratic regime might be, so there’s hope the desultory status quo will last until at least the next American presidential election.
In a more perfect world America wouldn’t have a president who has repeatedly cast international doubt on the conclusions of America’s intelligence, and one who has continued to negotiate with the puny likes of Iran as the leader of a unified coalition of the democratic and militarily and economically formidable western world, but here we are. We can’t say that any of these damned Democratic contenders for the presidency would fare any better, on the other hand, so for now we’ll hold out hope for even the most desultory sort of peace.
— Bud Norman