Washington was taken by surprise by the attack on an unarmed American MQ-Predator drone over the Persian Gulf by two Iranian SU-25 jet fighters, which only came to light Thursday, Nov. 8, after a week. The newly-reelected President Barack Obama and his advisers had assumed they were heading in a quite different direction, to very important direct talks with Tehran on its nuclear program and other Middle East affairs, including Syria.
But there was no mistake. Less than 24 hours after the event, Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi confirmed that two warplanes had indeed fired shots at an American drone on Nov. 1. He claimed the unmanned aircraft he entered Iranian airspace, challenging the Pentagon statement that the Predator based in Kuwait was on a routine surveillance mission in international air space. The drone was not hit.
This was the first Iranian attempt to shoot down an American aircraft over the Persian Gulf and also the first by a Revolutionary Guards Air Force fighter jet. Until it happened, Iranian fighter aircraft were not known to have the ability to down an American drone or that its pilots had been trained for this kind of mission.
Had they succeeded, Tehran would have accounted for its second US drone in the space of a year, after downing and capturing intact an American Sentinel loaded with surveillance gear.
Whereas the Obama administration has set its face toward diplomatic dialogue with Tehran and was therefore taken aback by this sudden act of aggression, the Iranians have a different take on the coming negotiations.
First of all, they have no interest in the short, fruitful process compressed into three months sought by Barack Obama (as DEBKAfile’s exclusive sources disclosed Thursday, Nov. 8), but have every intention of dragging it out over many months.
Neither is Tehran amenable to what it suspects are Israeli covert operations against Iranian targets carrying on in the course of its talks with Washington.
Iran and Sudan charged Israel with responsibility for the Oct. 24 bombing of the Yarmouk factory complex near Khartoum that manufactured Iranian missiles. It was implied that Iranian missile engineers lost their lives in the raid, which Israel has never acknowledged.
DEBKAfile’s military sources note that if Israel did indeed attack the Khartoum factory on that date, it would have coincided with the large-scale Austere Challenge 2012 war game American and Israeli forces were conducting at the time. They were practicing defensive measures against a simulated Iranian ballistic missile attack, bringing into play the most advanced US radar facilities posted in the Middle East and Europe, including the US X-band radar stationed in the Israeli Negev.
Iran took it for granted that if Israel was responsible for the Khartoum operation, it must have been with the knowledge of US Middle East commanders, the war game chiefs and Washington.
During September, ahead of the war game and the attack, Tehran twice warned that American targets would pay the price for an Israeli strike against an Iranian interest.
On Sept. 3, the warning came from Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah. He said: “The response will not be just inside the Israeli entity – American bases in the whole region could be Iranian targets.”
The same warning was repeated on Sept. 23, by the Revolutionary Guards Air Force commander Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh.
And on Nov. 1, Iranian fighters shot at – and missed – an unarmed American drone. This may be seen as payback for the Israeli assault on their missile plant in Sudan. It may also be Tehran’s warning to Washington to hold Israel back from any covert acts of sabotage if it desires negotiations with Iran.