Foreign Policy

Iranian Downing of U.S. Drone Raises Risk of War

Non-interventionists should be deeply concerned by the escalating tensions between the two countries.


Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have continued to escalate over the past several days in a way that should disturb anyone who doesn't want to see America get into another shooting war in the Middle East.

Yesterday, the Iranians downed a U.S surveillance drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran claims the aircraft flew into its airspace. The U.S. military maintains that its drone was over international waters the whole time, calling Iran's downing of the craft "an unprovoked attack."

President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter to say that "Iran made a very big mistake!"

This is only the latest in a series of incidents in the Persian Gulf that have ratcheted up tensions between the two powers.

On Monday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced that 1,000 additional troops would be headed to the Middle East for "defensive purposes" in response to attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the U.S. says Iran was behind. Those troops are in addition to the 1,200 troops the Trump administration sent to the Middle East in late May.

Iran has denied attacking the two tankers. On Monday, it also said it would be exceeding the limit on its uranium stockpile that the country had agreed to as part of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

In addition to this back-and-forth abroad, the Trump administration has been floating legal justifications for attacking Iran without congressional approval at home.

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been telling Congress that there are alarming ties between the Iranian government and Al Qaeda—a claim that was reportedly met with extreme skepticism.

The 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) gives the president the authority to wage war on Al Qaeda and its allies. More than a few people have argued that trying to link Iran and Al Qaeda is an attempt to stretch the meaning of the 2001 AUMF to allow the administration to attack Iran without any further congressional authorization.

"They are looking to bootstrap an argument to allow the president to do what he likes without coming to Congress, and they feel the 2001 authorization will allow them to go to war with Iran," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.) to The New York Times.

Politico also reports that Pompeo has been pitching lawmakers on the idea that the 2001 AUMF gives the president the power to unilaterally attack Iran. Supporting this argument is administration ally and Iran superhawk Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.).

"Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike," said Cotton in an interview with CBS on Sunday. "The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests."

In a Tuesday interview with Politico, Cotton urged the administration to bomb Iran in order to deter future attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf, saying that "there are more than ample targets that can deter Iran from this kind of malicious behavior whether it's naval bases or munition storage or refining capabilities."

Cotton has a likely ally in the form of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has long been a champion of war with Iran, and who has done his best to raise tensions with the country in recent weeks.

In late May, for example, Bolton announced that the U.S. would be sending an aircraft carrier and several bombers to the Persian Gulf as "a clear and unmistakable message" of resolve from Washington to Tehran.  He also reportedly ordered the Defense Department to review its contingency plans for war with Iran.

Trump himself has often expressed an unwillingness to get the U.S. engaged in further conflicts in the Middle East, even going so far as to announce a U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan—withdrawals that have so far failed to materialize.

Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) has appealed to Trump's past reticence about U.S. interventionism in an effort to forestall conflict with Iran.

"One of the things I like about President Trump is that he said the Iraq War was a mistake. I think an Iran war would be even a bigger mistake than the Iraq War. We lost over 4,000 soldiers over there. I don't think we need to get involved in another war," Paul said in a Fox News interview on Tuesday.

Whether Trump will listen to Paul or to his more hawkish advisors remains to be seen.