What If an Iranian Spy Plane Had Violated U.S. Airspace?

For sheer chutzpah, the request by the United States government that Iran return an American drone in its possession takes some beating.

The background to this remarkable story is as follows: on December 4th, Iran claimed to have brought down an American Sentinel drone, a pilotless and weaponless spy plane, near its border with Afghanistan. The drone, or “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV), to use the technical term, was then displayed on Iranian TV.

While acknowledging the loss of a drone, the US/NATO disputed Iran’s boast that they bore responsibility for bringing it down, with Rick Gladstone of the New York Times reporting that “American officials have attributed the loss of the drone to a technical malfunction.”

Regardless of who is correct, the fact remains that the US has indeed lost the drone and Iran now considers it its “property.”

It seems very likely that the drone was on an intelligence gathering mission in Iran. As the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner remarked, “speculation is rife that this particular aircraft was flying deep inside Iran to gather intelligence and real-time video footage of Iran’s nuclear sites.” Moreover, Reuters reported on December 13th that “a person familiar with the situation has since told Reuters in Washington that the drone was on a surveillance mission over Iran.”

The diplomatic campaign launched by the US government following this foreign policy setback has been wonderfully bold. Rather than refusing to comment on the episode, which in the circumstances would probably have been the wisest course of action, US officials have instead asked for the plane back. This is akin to a burglar breaking into someone’s home, then going back the next day to ask for his jimmy back.

Speaking at a press conference with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on December 12th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the US had “submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment.” Lost, that is, while secretly gathering intelligence in Iranian airspace. Mrs. Clinton sounded far from optimistic about the potential for success, though, opining that in light of “Iran’s behavior to date we do not expect them to comply” and alluded to “all of these [Iranian] provocations and concerning actions.”

Secretary Clinton was joined in her remonstrations by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who “said the request to return the drone was appropriate,” noted the Washington Post.

Just take a moment to consider the extraordinary nature of this demand. The US has not ruled out the use of military force to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme, and yet it expects the Iranians to kindly return a plane it was using for espionage.

Notwithstanding the shaky ground occupied by the American administration, Mrs. Clinton received moral support from William Hague, who likewise talked tough on Iran, declaring that “in recent weeks and months …. we’ve seen an increasing predilection for dangerous and illegal adventures on the part of at least parts of the Iranian regime.” Although he had choice words for Iran, Mr. Hague did not consider the recent dangerous and illegal infringement of Iranian territory by the US worthy of condemnation.

Unsurprisingly, and understandably, the response from Iran to the American request that the drone be returned was negative. A spokesman pointed out that Iranian airspace, as well as international law, had been violated.

There can be no doubt about the seriousness of this incident. Infringing the airspace of another state, especially one with which the US does not have diplomatic relations, is incendiary and could be construed as an act of war.

It is worth considering how the US government would have reacted had the shoe been on the other foot. This might be dismissed as a purely academic exercise, for given the sophistication of the US military, it is of course improbable that an Iranian spy plane would succeed in violating the airspace of the United States. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that such an eventuality would be met with incandescent outrage by the US government, and demands for an appropriate response, presumably military action, from Congress and the public, would almost certainly follow. And just imagine if the Iranians had the nerve to ask for their plane back! Howls of derision would rightly follow, and not only in the US.

In short, the stance of the US in this instance is one of pure hypocrisy. And while it is not exactly original to accuse the American government of double standards, in the case of the Sentinel drone, it is guilty as charged.

Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.