Many commentators have depicted the Iranian capture of a virtually intact American unmanned reconnaissance aircraft as a sign of escalating tension between Tehran and Washington and rising risks of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. However, the drone episode also highlights a deeper reality, something which is becoming an ever more prominent feature in our own analysis: that the strategic contest between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States is more than a struggle over the Middle East’s balance of power (as important as that prize is). It is, in its foundations, a struggle over the legitimacy of American hegemony and over the future of global governance.
The dispatch of American drones into Iranian airspace to collect intelligence is a clear-cut violation of Iranian sovereignty. According to a letter from the Islamic Republic’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Mohammad Khazae, to UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon, the drone that the Iranians have captured, “after reaching the northern part of Tabas area—250 kilometres (150) miles deep inside Iranian territory”, was “confronted by the timely response of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces”, which brought the unmanned vehicle to the ground and into Iranian custody. Iran’s accusations on this point are not based on un-evidenced, “trust us” allegations (such as those advanced by the United States about assassination plots entailing the engagement of Mexican drug cartels as suppliers of hit men). The Iranian accusations are based on their physical possession and display of the captured drone—that is, on actual evidence, of the clearest, hardest, most “smoking gun”-quality (or perhaps one should say, “smoking engine exhaust”-quality) that one can imagine.
And yet, it will be very surprising if Iran’s accusations get anything like a serious hearing by the United Nations Security Council. Of course, one would be correct to point out that, if the issue were taken up by the Security Council, the United States would be able to veto any adverse action. But, in all likelihood, the United States will not end up in the position of having to fabricate some laughably strained, intellectually disingenuous argument as to why sending drones into another sovereign state’s airspace does not violate international law, in order to “justify” its veto in the Security Council. Washington will rely on subservient Europeans, a pliable Secretary General, and its ability to pressure other states not to support a serious discussion of the Iranian charges to avoid such a scenario.
This is an important aspect of ongoing American hegemony in contemporary world affairs: the United States, as the hegemon (even if a declining one), can invoke and even distort international law for its purposes, but has multiple ways to forestall having international law invoked against it. An American international relations theorist, Randall Schweller, recently pointed out that unipolarity is the only international system in which “balancing”—that is, a state taking normal steps in its military posture and its foreign policy to defend itself against a more powerful state (like a global hegemon)—is considered “revisionist” or, as U.S. policymakers typically put it, “destabilizing” behavior. The demonization of Iranian balancing behavior in the United States and other Western countries provides powerful confirmation for Schweller’s thesis. But America’s empire goes further than that: under the pax americana, just trying to invoke the rules that the hegemon says it wants everyone to observe is, in itself, considered inflammatory—or, at best, unserious—behavior.
Consider, in this context, the reaction in American policy and media circles to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s criticisms—voiced during his visits to New York to participate in the United Nations General Assembly—of the Security Council and other established structures of global governance. Ahmadinejad points out how unfair and dysfunctional these structures are—among other reasons because they are less and less reflective of the actual distribution of power and influence in the world.
American elites dismiss this as simply one more delusional trope in the Iranian President’s rhetoric. They are wrong to do so. An important element in the Islamic Republic’s grand strategy is a calculation that larger and larger parts of the world are becoming less and less willing to keep living under American hegemony, especially when this brings, with seemingly increasing frequency, things like the Iraq war, empowerment of open-ended Israeli colonialism, and financial crisis linked in no small part to the United States’ unconstrained fiscal and economic profligacy.
As power diffuses from the United States and its Western partners to rising states like China and India and emerging regional players like Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey (and, yes, Iran as well), Washington is challenged to shift from exercising international influence by coercion and diktat to pursuing its interests and goals through more traditional sorts of diplomacy that require actual accommodation of other parties’ interests. American political and policy elites have, so far, proven themselves almost wholly unwilling to meet this challenge. In this context, America’s ongoing contest with the Islamic Republic acts as a kind of political catalyst, bringing the intertwined crises of American hegemony and global governance closer and closer to a major inflection point—a point at which a critical mass of non-Western states says, in effect, that they have had enough, and begins taking serious economic and political steps to rein in the United States.
A U.S.-initiated war against Iran could end up being precisely that sort of breaking point. It is clear to us that the Islamic Republic does not want a military confrontation with the United States. But Tehran is not going to surrender to Washington’s continuing assertion of its hegemonic prerogatives in order to avoid such a confrontation. The United States can start a war with Iran, with no legal justification that anyone except Israel and a few Western allies would claim to recognize. But, in terms of America’s long-term international position, this would prove to be a disastrous undertaking for the United States.