Is America Waging a Covert War on Iran?

We still don't know the truth about the lost U.S. spy drone.


The U.S. government lost a spy drone over Iran. Is it part of an ongoing covert war?

Either Iranian forces shot it down or it fell out of the sky. We may never know which, but now the Obama administration wants it back. Iran says no. It is apparently studying the craft's advanced stealth and other technology—and perhaps attempting to reverse engineer it.

This is not analogous to playful kids who accidentally throw a baseball into a neighbor's yard and ask for it back. The U.S. government has been making war sounds in Iran's direction for years, and these belligerent noises have grown louder in recent months. While there are grounds for believing the U.S. military does not want to attack Iran, which is far larger and more populous than Iraq and would require a long, bloody involvement throughout the region, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insist that "all options are on the table."

Those who insist that the U.S. government is a benevolent force in the world ought to take note that the Obama administration has not excluded nuclear weapons from the list of options.

But the present trouble only scratches the surface. For years the U.S. government has menaced Iran with a military presence in the region, including warships in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Iran is virtually surrounded by American military bases. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq put thousands of troops just across Iran's east and west borders. Other close U.S. allies in the region include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

Admittedly, the Bush administration's overthrow of Iran's nemesis, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, seems to have introduced an incoherent note in an otherwise consistently anti-Iran policy. The now Shiite-ruled Iraq is closer to Iran's regime than Saddam's Sunni Ba'athist regime was. (The U.S. government supported Saddam when his military attacked Iran in 1980.)

Moreover, U.S. troops are leaving Iraq, as called for by the agreement negotiated between the Iraqi regime and the Bush administration. But the troops are not going far. As the Department of Defense puts it, the forces are simply being "repostured," that is, moved elsewhere in the region, including Kuwait. Iran surely has noticed.

The U.S. government wants the American people to believe that there are sound reasons for this belligerence, namely, that it is defensive and preemptive. Nonsense. As many have pointed out, U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran dropped its nuclear-weapons program over eight years ago, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has regularly certified that Iran has complied with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Every speck of Iran's uranium is accounted for by the IAEA—none has been diverted to weapons production.

Of course, U.S. regimes have portrayed Iran as aggressively anti-American since its 1979 Islamic revolution. But that narrative conveniently leaves out the fact that the CIA helped overthrow a democratic government and install the brutal Shah in 1953. Iran did not start the hostilities.

So is war against Iran ahead? Who can say for certain? The economic sanctions the U.S. has long maintained against Iran, which have been intensified of late, already constitute an act of war under international law and could be the prelude to overt war. The sanctions are apparently supposed to persuade the Iranian people, who unlike their rulers suffer privation, to overthrow their government. The problem for the U.S. policy is that sanctions more often than not have the opposite effect: they prompt the people to rally around the government to counter the external enemy.

But something even more ominous is becoming clear: a covert war against Iran. Fox News called the downed drone

the latest in a series of mysterious events, including explosions and assassinations targeting Iran's nuclear scientists and its ballistic missile program. Some argue that the covert war against Iran's nuclear program is under way, but it began more than a year ago.

War without the American people's knowledge? It wouldn't be the first time.

A war with Iran would be catastrophic—for Iranians, Americans (government contractors excepted), and Israelis. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta believes that's the case, as do former Israeli Mossad chiefs. President Obama must do the decent thing and take all forms of warfare off the table.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va., author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine. This article originally appeared at The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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  1. Who doesn’t put a self-destruct function on their spy drones? I mean, really.

    Also, no more Evening Links. They’re kaput. Heard it here first.

    1. You should get ready to eat your words just like you did yesterday. What’s that old Klingon proverb? “Being totally wrong is a dish best served hot and with a large heaping of shame”? I think that ‘s how it goes.

      (hands FoE a bib)

      1. I’m not wrong. Spy drones should have self-destruct functions.

        1. They do. You have to learn why things work on a spy drone.

          Do you need another bib?

        2. This is all an extremely brilliant plot to gather intelligence on the Iranian’s electronic warfare capabilities. See they put a drone out where the Iranian’s can snatch it and then the drone secretly sends back intel on who and how its captured and dissasembled.

          Just like the “intell” gathering programs of the ATF (running guns) and DEA (laundering money)work.

          Unfortunately, just like th above programs, they forgot to figure out how they would get the intell *back* once its gathered.

          Look: If we made this large wooden badger . . .

          1. I hope you are right. And that it is loaded with lots of disinformation.

          2. Who said that we didn’t have the drone ‘crash’ there on purpose? Either way I doubt they are going to gain any useful information from this. Because if they legitmately had taken down a drone, or if it wasn’t a ploy by the US I doubt the Iranians would make as big a hubabaloo about it since

            a) they would want to discretly learn what information they could

            b) the US would have attempted to destroy it like we did that helicopter in Pakistan.

    2. People who want pretext for war.

    3. Not sure where I read it but it supposedly had a major failure. It’s fail-safe mode of automatically returning to base didn’t work, so the self destruct probably didn’t work either.

      Perhaps if we asked, “Return it. Pretty please, with bacon grease on it?” they would return it.

    4. You know in retrospect, I question the inclusion of a self-destruct button in the first place.

  2. Lysander Spooner was a rapist and murderer, and a monster of the worst order. I find the constant defenes of him on this site to be strange and uncalled for. In his own small way he is as bad as Hitler or Stalin.

    1. Sorry, posted this in the wrong thread. My apologies. But the statement stands.

      1. Re: Principaled Masochist,

        Must’ve been a very… interesting… talk with the principal to say you were “principaled”…

        Was his name Sandusky, by any chance?

        1. How anyone can confuse Spooner with Che Guevara?

    2. Would you provide references that demononstrate that Spooner was a rapist, murderer and a monster of the worst order?

    3. WTF?

      Principaled Minarchist is a troll of the worst order.

  3. Fuckin warmongering neocons. And by that I mean TEAM BLUE *and* TEAM RED.

    1. I would include those who aren’t on any team as well.

  4. I predict serious moves toward war with Iran after the inauguration in 2013. I further predict that it will not matter a whit which Team’s empty suit is on the podium.

    1. What if it’s Ron Paul?

        1. That other guy. It’s Romney, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, Cain and that other guy.

          1. Ohhhhh, you mean Huntsman? I hear he came in 8th in Iowa after Santorum and Mayor McCheese.

            1. No, no, no…it’s “He who shall not be named.” By ANY media outlet.

              Even though he’s within the margin of error in Iowa. Nope, can’t win, not a real candidate…

              1. The media have not totally ignored Ron Paul. For example, NBC’s Meet The Press invited Ron Paul for a Sunday morning interview during which David Gregory asked Rep. Paul about whether he favored Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney for the Republican nominee.

                Before the most recent debate, Chris Wallace (FOX) said that a Paul victory would “discredit the Iowa caucuses because, rightly or wrongly, I think most of the Republican establishment thinks he’s not going to end up as the nominee. So therefore, Iowa won’t count.”

                Let me get this straight: unless Iowa caucus-goers select a bozo or hack approved by the Republican elite, Iowa won’t count. If that is correct, it would seem that Iowa doesn’t count anyway.

  5. Obama isn’t so stupid as to start a war with Iran. No, he’ll only send in advisors and small arms to indigenous counter insurgents.

    1. I fear he is stupid enough. If not stupid, then at least so incompetent as to make no difference.

      1. A war with Iran would be a form of stimulus. Keynes would approve.

          1. Do I get to were my antenna hat and say ‘Na noo, na noo?’

    2. he’ll only send in advisors and small arms to indigenous counter insurgents.

      Very Kennedy-esque.

  6. I don’t understand our basis for claiming that the Iranians are somehow obligated to give us the drone back.

    If Iran flew a Killer Robot around in the airspace of Nebraska for a while, and their Killer Robot crashed and we recovered it, if Iran stood up and said, “We demand that you return our property, namely our lost Killer Robot!” would we give it back to them?

    1. That’s the problem with using inclusive collective pronouns in politics, isn’t it?

      I don’t associate myself with the federal government or whichever gang of idiots is currently running it, so I find Obama’s impotent demands for the return of his propertah to be the highest of comedy.

      1. Indeed, when a stealth bomber went down in Serbia, we bombed tghe site until there was nothing let, rather than let the Serbs sell the wreckage to the Chinese.

        1. Thats why I am not entirely sure that this is a real drone.

    2. Listen to you being pro-terrorist you terrorist lover. Why do you hate America?

      1. I don’t hate her, but she picks shitty material and she is very plain looking. More, ‘meh’ than ‘his, boo!’
        What has done lately, since Ugly Betty was cancelled?

      2. Yeah, them killer robots are over thar fightin’ fer our FREEDOM!

        1. Look, they are terroristy mcterrorists, and the RQ170 is a shining beacon of freedom and justice. And missiles.

    3. No. But the two situations are entirely different. The drone in Iran was a U.S. drone, flying around in Iran. In your situation it would be an Iranian drone flying around Nebraska. So…

    4. Because the United States is somehow more special-er and better-er than other nations. Duh.


    5. Imagine a Spanish ship full of gold and silver sunk off the coast of Florida 400 years ago was found and salvaged. The current Spanish govt will request that their property be returned. If, somehow, the drone ends up the hands of a third party the US govt will want to present evidence of ownership.

  7. The misnamed “Reason” magazine is spouting a further extension of Ron Paul’s garbage. Does America really need an antisemitic isolationist? Does he really think appeasing the Arabs will help us any?

    Ron Paul 1488
    The Final Solution for America

    The two eights of the number 1488 stand for the eigth letter of the alphabet: H. And the two of them together form H H or Heil Hitler.

    The fourteen part of the number 1488 stands for those fourteen words that every white supremacist knows: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children. (hat tip Bill Levinson)

    “There’s no need to fear? Underzog is here!”

    1. Underslob, you need psychiatric help.

    2. Bradley, go outside. Brookline is nice this time of year.

      1. No, we don’t need a antisemitic isolationist.

        Why don’t you name one, though, just for shits and grins?

    3. H H or Heil Hitler

      Isn’t it (H)er(o)ic Holder?

  8. okay, this sounds paranoid partisan whacko, but based on Obama’s past political moves, a war would not greatly surprise me. A rally ’round the president/flag moment, timed just right, would mean the difference between re-election and a hard-pitched battle against a less-than-ideal ‘publican. Everything Obama does seems to be based on ‘political calculations’, not necessarily what’s best for the country.

    Again, I hope I’m wrong.

    1. Don’t be ridiculous. The Iranian war machine clearly attacked that peaceful drone. It was looking for evidence of crop circles when it was ruthlessly and brutally attacked.

      1. So true. And when we bomb and kill any of them covertly, they are obligated to understand we are only freeing them and forego any belligerent acts of self-defense.

        1. It’s in the name of the Arab Spring(tm), which I now refer to as Springtime for Arabs.

          1. “…which I now refer to as Springtime for Arabs.”

            Has a certain “ring” to it! Perhaps we can do lunch?

            1. Yeah, let’s do lunch.

        2. And let’s not forget that if we only use armed drones then its not really a war anyway.

          1. Good point. After all, it would be the robots doing the killing, not the US military…I mean, if anyone was pointing fingers.

            Hell, the robots would be mostly made in China…so it would be China who should get the blame…

    2. The scary prospect — of selling this Iran War idea to a willing public — is that it would, I think, require dramatic pretext. As in false-flag pretext.

      1. Wag the dog. Or maybe pig.

  9. “What this country needs is a short, victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.” – Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve

  10. It’s in the Covert Constitution. The President can fight a covert war with anyone as his personal prerogative. It also says he can detain anyone indefinitely if he says they bad enough. The Covert Constitution also says he doesn’t have to show you the Covert Constitution.

    1. By definition, anyone can do anything covertly.

      1. But not everyone can charge whistle-blowers with treason.

        1. Anybody can charge anybody with anything. I charge you of glibness. Better yet, I charge you $50, pay up.

  11. If only it had crashed into Capital Hill…

    1. If only it had crashed into Capital Chapel Hill…

      1. If only it had crashed into Capital Faith Hill…

        1. If only it had crashed into Dusty Hill (his beard would surely have dampened the impact).

          1. If only it had crashed into Grant Hill…in 1999.

  12. “Is America Waging a Covert War on Iran?”

    Damn well better be!

    1. Amen. And no one’s mentioned yet that Iran’s been waging a covert war against us for the last 30 years?

      But it seems Mr. Richman here thinks we deserve it, or should lie down and take it, because after all the US helped topple an Iranian government 60 fucking years ago.

      1. We helped topple a Soviet-leaning Iranian government that was right next to the Persian Gulf, in 1953, which is the same year the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, which they had gotten from the Rosenbergs.

        1. In other words, in 1953, it’s sort of understandable why the US would be a bit freaked out by a Soviet-friendly government in Iran.

    2. Iran has been waging war against the U.S. since November 4, 1979. I know Ron Paul, and candidate Obama both want to pretend it isn’t so – but the facts are there.

      1. What “facts”?

        1. Invading our embassy (sovereign territory) and holding Americans hostage for 444 days.

          Contributing weapons, training, funds, and possibly personnel to kill Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq.

          Those facts.

  13. While I agree with some of your points, your statements about the IAEA clearing Iran of suspicion of working on nuclear weapons is completely false. In fact, they just released a report on November 8th stating they had caught Iran working on technologies that were specific to weapons development. Get your facts straight, Sir!!…..t-15643460

    1. Eh? What’s that you say? It’s really hard to hear you down here.

  14. How to tell if your country is Imperialistic. Insert “Switzerland” instead of your country in news articles. If it sounds pretty screwy (WTF is Switzerland doing there???) then chances are your country may be Imperialistic. Example from above article:

    “But the present trouble only scratches the surface. For years the Swiss government has menaced Iran with a military presence in the region, including warships in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Iran is virtually surrounded by Swiss military bases. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq put thousands of troops just across Iran’s east and west borders. Other close Swiss allies in the region include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.”

    1. +1000


    2. Ah the wonderful Swiss. Willing to burn cheap gas and hide Arafat’s cash without any judgement on how things came to be.

      When the Eurozone crashes and the Arab Spring turns to winter – they can go back milking sheep and yodeling.

      1. Somehow I don’t think much will change, considering they aren’t a member of the EU. Most likely, everyone in Europe will move their money into gold-demoninated swiss bank accounts. Switzerland would prosper from a EuroZone crash.

  15. Why is a covert war more ominous than an overt one? Sheldon, are you going by an overly literal meaning of “ominous” — that what’s obvious can’t be an omen, therefore the hidden is ominous while the open is not?

    1. Lack of democratic debate and Congressional approval? Further reminding us that our “democracy” is a sham and our government is essentially unaccountable to the American people?

      1. I’ll take a covert war over an overt one any time. An overt one is likely to be much bloodier. Like hot war vs. cold.

      2. If Jimmy Carter had asked for a declaration of war in 1979, he would have got it.

    2. Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not.

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  17. Either Iranian forces shot it down or it fell out of the sky.

    Or the Iranians hacked the data link and uh, borrowed it.

    As many have pointed out, U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran dropped its nuclear-weapons program…

    Except when they say otherwise. Nobody knows if they’ve got them, are only working on them, or just dreaming about them.

    Covert stuff is great. Nobody really knows anything, therefore people can make up reasons to go do anything they feel like.

    So, what do you feel like today?

  18. In 1945, the USA created the UN to end war. It worked. We haven’t declared war since then.

    1. Neat trick, huh? But we should give the Europeans credit for inventing the idea about 100 years before that.

      Curiously, Europeans came up with the idea of the UN at about the same time they came up with the idea of creating Israel.

      1. And people have been bitching about the creation of Israel ever since.

        They just need to get over it.

  19. What does it mean to “take all forms of warfare off the table?” Sorry Sheldon, as long as we have a military, using it is “on the table.” As long as we have nukes using them is “on the table.” Obama can make all the promises in the world not to use them. They’ll be worth just as much as his other promises.

    1. Not to mention the fact that it’s always a good negotiating tactic to give your adversary a completely accurate list of everything you are and are not prepared to do if your demands aren’t met. Oy.

      1. Not that these nations will really believe him. I mean to date the US is the only nation that has used atomic weaponry in combat. And the only reason we didn’t compeltely glass Japan at the time was because we couldn’t; we ran out of nukes.

  20. “Of course, U.S. regimes have portrayed Iran as aggressively anti-American since its 1979 Islamic revolution. But that narrative conveniently leaves out the fact that the CIA helped overthrow a democratic government and install the brutal Shah in 1953. Iran did not start the hostilities.”

    And you can go back to Xeres and Alexander the Great. Doesn’t give them an excuse for being assholes now.

    “The economic sanctions the U.S. has long maintained against Iran, which have been intensified of late, already constitute an act of war under international law and could be the prelude to overt war”

    So, were we at war with South Africa in the 80’s?

    Not a fan of bombing Iran, but hysterical article is hysterical.

    1. ^THIS^

      Playing the historical blame game is an extraordinarily pointless exercise, any one who is intent on picking a fight will be able to grab on to some historical rationale if they are so inclined.

      This sort of us vs. them tribalism has led to untold death and destruction.

      1. Right, who cares who started what???!! It’s time to fight, fight, fight!

      2. Whatever. I’ll toss my lot in with the us vs. them tribalists who aren’t angling for another war.

    2. The current regime is a consequence of the 1953 meddling. That’s not the same as going back to Alexander the Great.

      It’s something that we ought to think about whenever the U.S. government meddles. Actions have consequences. I don’t understand why that simple principle is so fucking hard for people to understand.

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  23. Several years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski said that the US was conducting covert ops in Iran. By definition, covert ops are acts of war and/or acts of terrorism. So, yes, the US is waging a covert war on Iran, and has been for years. Of course, we’ll claim that they started it when the overt war starts.

    1. Overt act of war? Like attacking an embassy and taking hostages?

      1. Like taking out your government and replacing it with a government more to your liking?

  24. Reason, what happened? Are good interns so hard to come by you have to steal them from The Nation now?

    Besides the idiocy of statements like that Iran had dropped its nuclear program years ago, it’s the whiny, self-righteous tone that gets me. Reasons writes used to have a sense of humor.

    And now sanctions are a form of war. Really? I guess it’s explained in Int’l Law 101, a pre-req for more advanced classes, like Environmental Justice and Global Warming Reparations.

    P.S. I agree demanding the drone back is weak, lame and stupid.

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  26. This article strikes me as a bit paranoid. I am not seeing drumbeats for war with Iran in the news media, and there’s almost universal agreement on both sides of the political spectrum to avoid any more foreign wars for now.
    Back in 2005 Seymore Hersh was saying we were going to nuke them, and that obviously never happened. But there seems ot be a perenial belief that we’re on the verge of attacking them floating out there in the conspiracy-sphere ever since. What with the Arab spring, it’s somewhat more likely that we’ll instigate an Iranian uprising, covertly of course.

    I expect Reason to be a bit more level-headed, honestly.

    1. I used to feel like that too. But the prospect that Iran actually hacked the data link and took the drone from us that way, where ever it was flying at the time, is not beyond feasible.

      I remember reading right here at Reason that there really is no such thing as any “cyber security” issues to worry about, that it was all just a bunch of BS invented by uncle Sam.

      Seems they lost sight of the fact that there are cyber security issues in today’s world, and it’s not going away. The problem Reason should be drum beating, is the fact that the people who have to deal with things like data link security have absolutely no respect for civil rights.

      Sometimes I smell an element of alarmist headlining that didn’t used to be found much around here.

      1. I agree. I find the prospect of war with Iran far fetched at the moment. THe US is already taken other means to isolate and contain the emerging power, i.e building closer ties with Turkey which is the real emerging powerhouse of the region.

  27. I am not seeing drumbeats for war with Iran in the news media, and there’s almost universa.

  28. Remember the beginning of Golden Eye ?

    Also, I wonder who programs the software ? China ?

  29. Yes we are. There is a Plan Iranian just like there is a Plan Colombia. Like weak-minded Annakin Skywalker, we are killing all the Jedi under the Sith Lord manipulation of Great Britain.

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