By Ty Cobb* —
Iranian armed forces claim they shot down an unmanned U.S. drone spy plane over its eastern border region. This event occurred amid growing indications that the U.S., Israel, and other countries have launched fairly sophisticated covert programs aimed at destabilizing the regime and impairing Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. has confirmed that it lost an RQ-170 Sentinel UAV that was the same kind reportedly used to keep watch on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The drone is equipped with stealth technology which allows it to fly at lower altitudes, but remain safe from anti-aircraft missiles. American sources said that the plane was flying over Western Afghanistan but they “lost control of the UAV”. It really wasn’t flying over Iran, you understand. Hmmm.
Iran claims that it either shot down the RQ-170 or managed to break into the communications system and bring it down electronically. If true that would be very worrisome, but these claims are highly doubtful. However, we do know that only six weeks ago Russia delivered the “Avtobaza” ground-based electronic intelligence and jamming system to Iran. The S-300 is more than a traditional AAA system in that it is designed to jam side-looking and fire control radars and manipulate guidance and control systems of enemy missiles and aircraft. Was this system able to break into the communications link that permits a UAV to be controlled from a remote location? So far doubtful—we think that the RQ-170 simply lost guidance and crashed in Iran. Still, if the drone did not self-destruct after losing guidance and is largely intact, this could be an intelligence windfall for Tehran.
There is growing evidence that the West is engaged in a covert war against the Iranian regime and, specifically, its nascent nuclear weapons program. According to Michael Hirsch (writing in the Dec 4 edition of the National Journal), this may include the Stuxnet virus, the blowing-up of facilities, and the assassination or kidnapping of scientists. He notes that Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirik nuclear reactor was preceded by assassination attempts on Iraqi scientists.
In turn Iran is taking precautionary steps. The top leadership of the nuclear weapons program, such as Mohsen Fakrizadeh, are hidden way from sight, and the regime is burying its facilities deeper underground. Iran is also employing offensive tactics against the West. This includes the Revolutionary Guards’ attempt to blow up a Washington, D.C. restaurant while the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. would be dining there, as well as a less-known attempt to bomb the Israeli Embassy. They have stepped up their involvement in Iraq in an attempt to undermine stability there. The Quds force and other elements are funneling arms, money, and supplies to militant groups throughout the world, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian minority dictatorship, and Hamas in Gaza. Much of this has been going on for some time but the pace seems to have been picking up.
The West has employed sanctions against Iran, specifically trying to strangle its oil and petrochemical infrastructure, and has increased financial measures designed to cripple Tehran’s economic potential. At the same time, Western nations worry that applying too much pressure on the oil industry could lead to a collapse of that sector, resulting in a severe reduction in the supply of oil to the world market. They also worry that Tehran could retaliate by closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world’s oil trade flows.
China and Russia are likely to veto any deeper sanctions; thus, the attraction of employing covert measures against the regime.
Observers are speculating that certain Western agencies were also behind recent bombings of Iranian nuclear program sites, and have been secretly supporting the Green Movement in an attempt to further weaken the regime and spread discontent. Whether this turmoil is really driven by outside forces or reflects growing Iranian domestic discontent with the regime, the Mullahs, the Military, and the Revolutionary Guards are clearly worried. It is good that they are and good that they are off balance.
I have advocated that while the U.S., Israel, and their allies should not “take the military option off the table”, there is no viable strike option on Iran that really could do much damage. It might, in fact, rally the dissidents to support the regime. The best options are to continue to increase sanctions on Tehran’s petrochemical sector, impede its financial systems, maintain secret surveillance over key areas, provide extensive support to anti-regime elements, and employ intrusive Cyberwar techniques.
*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press.