So late Thursday, a CNN blog breathlessly reported that on Nov 1 an unarmed US Reaper drone was shot at by an Iranian fighters. Glenn Greenwald has taken apart this CNN report, so I recommend reading his analysis.
[Now, as a matter of principle, whenever a story about Iran comes out in the media, it is best to wait at least a day for the rest of it to come out...or better yet, at least a year. The unreliability of such news is compounded when the story is first published in one of the "news blogs" phenomena which regularly further blur the distinction between news and hype. And once something is reported by one news agency in any form, it falls into the echo chamber and gets repeated ad infinitum by other outlets until it obtains a ring of truth--not because any of the claims have been objectively verified but simply because the story is further embellished and repeated.]
The question on everyone's mind is where was the drone located, naturally. It is claimed in the media, repeatedly, that the drone was inside "international airspace" when it was shot at, and so this was an "act of aggression" by Iran.
Leaving aside the number of times that that US drones have violated Iranian airspace and thus committed similar "acts of aggression"...
The Washington Post actually reports that the Iranian fighter "pursued the U.S. drone as it retreated from Iranian airspace." This can be read as an admission that the drone had been inside Iranian airspace before it "retreated from Iranian airspace". If so, guess what? Under international law, there's a doctrine called Hot Pursuit, which allows coastal nations to chase violators into international territory and capture/shoot them down. So in other words, had the drone previously violated Iranian airspace, the Iranians were perfectly entitled to chase and shoot at it in international airspace.
Of course the reporters say that the drone was 16 miles away from Iranian territory, based on what the Pentagon told them. The reporters then helpfully remind readers that the sovereign territory of countries extends 12 miles into international waters. The conclusion the reader is supposed to reach is that the drone was outside of Iranian airspace by 4 miles, and so the Iranians had no right to shoot at it... except that the reporters are not international lawyers who specialize in the highly complex area of resolving international border disputes. They don't mention that the 12-mile territorial limit applies in theory to perfectly straight boundaries; things get much more complicated when there are complicated coastlines, shifting sand banks, islands, bays etc. (in fact the US makes a claim to waters around it that far exceeds the 12 mile limit.) And they also don't mention that this drone reportedly can fly at speeds of 135 miles per hour, which means that the 4 mile buffer could have been breached by the drone in a mere 107 seconds, or about 1.5 minutes. Yes, when shot at, the drone was just about 1 minute away from Iranian airspace. What a terrible act of blatant aggression by Iran! Imagine if Iran had been sending military drones to within 1 minute of the US coastline!
What they also don't mention is that the boundaries of waters East of Kuwait are highly disputed between Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait. There are no defined boundaries there, so to say that the drone was in "international" airspace is complete bullshit. This was a problem back in 2007, when Iran captured several British Marines in the area. At the time the UK govt claimed repeatedly that the Marines had been captured inside Iraqi waters. The London Times reported, a year after the event, that the Brits had simply decided to draw their own boundary lines, without telling anyone else:
"Fifteen British sailors and Marines were seized by Iran in internationally disputed waters and not in Iraq’s maritime territory as Parliament was told, according to new official documents released to The Times. The Britons were seized because the US-led coalition designated a sea boundary for Iran’s territorial waters without telling the Iranians where it was, internal Ministry of Defence briefing papers reveal."
All of this came to light after Amb Craig Murray mentioned it on his blog. In addition to being an ambassador, he had headed the section of the UK Foreign Office in charge of negotiating international boundaries. According to Murray:
The difficulty is that the maritime delimitation in the North West of the Persian Gulf, between Iraq, Kuwait and Iran, has never been resolved. It is not therefore a question of just checking your GPS to see where you are. This is a perfectly legitimate dispute, in which nobody is particularly at fault. Lateral maritime boundaries from a coastal border point are intensely complicated things, especially where islands and coastal banks become a factor.
And Parliamentary investigation later concluded:
"We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the map of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway provided by the Government was less than clear than it ought to have been. The Government was fortunate that it was not in Iran's interests to contest the accuracy of the map."
And Martin Pratt of the International Boundaries Research Unit of Durham University testified in that same investigation:
"The former head of the Foreign Office's Martime Section, Craig Murray, has stated on several occasions that the map published by the Ministry of Defence following the arrest of British forces was a 'fake'. I believe that the map was certainly an oversimplification of reality, and I think it could reasonably be argued that it was deliberately misleading...."
So you can't trust the Brits to be honest, but what about the Americans? Well, sadly the US Navy doesn't exactly have a great record of being honest about things like that either; they claimed that the USS Vincennes was acting in self defense inside international waters when it shot down Iran Air 655 on July 3 1988. Only later it turned out that the Vincennes had initiated the conflict (and so could not claim self-defense) and was actually (illegally) inside Iranian territorial waters at the time too. It took 4 years until that lie was exposed by a joint Newsweek/Nightline investigation. Adm. Crowe (then retired) came on TV and confessed to the real location of the Vincennes to Ted Koppel on Nightline:
Ted Koppel (interviewing). But if I were to ask you today, was the Vincennes in international waters at the time that she shot down the Airbus—William J. Crowe Jr. Yes, she was.
Ted Koppel. In international waters?
William J. Crowe Jr. No, no, no.
She was in Iran’s territorial waters.
Ted Koppel. Let me ask you again.
Where was the Vincennes at the time that she shot down the Airbus?
William J. Crowe Jr. She was in Iran territorial waters.
John Barry (Newsweek correspondent). The first and most basic thing that they covered up was where the Vincennes was when the whole thing happened. And that cover-up starts with the very first chart that was ever produced of the event...
So, we're supposed to automatically believe whatever the Pentagon says about the location of drone today?
[Crowe later tried to downplay the fact that the Vincennes was inside Iranian waters by claiming, amongst other things, that the location did not matter --- which begs the question of why the US lied about it for so long. They even went to the extremes of erasing an Iranian island from the map presented by to the Congressional whitewash investigation into the matter, headed by Adm Fogarty.]
Incidentally, I'm also amused by the number of articles including in the Washington Post and Glen Greenwald's Guardian post which remind reader that Iran previously "shot down" a US RQ-170 drone. Actually, the Iranians captured the drone by taking over its GPS guidance system; they did not "shoot" it down. They were kind enough to put it on display pretty much intact, explaining that the drone suffered some undercarriage damage since the elevation of the place it was fooled into landing was slightly different from where it thought it was landing. But I suppose the fact that Iranians captured this drone is something that the media and the US Govt would prefer be forgotten. US Sec of Def Panetta dismissed Iranian claims about capturing the drone, but in fact this was later proven to be easily do-able
One final point: The Pentagon says this entire incident occurred over the Arabian Gulf. Since there is no such place called the Arabian Gulf, then it never happened.