On Thursday, June 20, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) shot down an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone, nearly igniting open conflict between the United States and Iran. The $180 million U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk was struck by an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN) surface-to-air missile launched from near Goruk, Iran. With strained relations over new U.S. sanctions against the regime and coming after weeks of drama over evidence suggesting Iran was emplacing limpet mines on commercial oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the incident caused President Trump to order – and then to abruptly cancel – strikes against Iranian military facilities. After first promising quick retaliation, President Trump took a step back, stating, “ have a feeling — I may be wrong and I may be right, but I’m right a lot — I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn’t have been doing what they did.”
Apparently, the decision to cancel the counterattack was made because U.S. intelligence assessed that the shootdown was made by a local IRGCN commander and was not sanctioned by the regime in Tehran. Intelligence reports suggest that the Iranian regime was “furious” with the wayward commander’s decision to attack the drone, and the U.S. President deescalated the situation.
The U.S. has suffered decades of Iranian violations of the freedom to transit through and above the oceans near Iran. The IRGCN appears as a matter of policy to selectively harass foreign commercial and naval ships conducting lawful transit in the Strait of Hormuz, and in 2016 it unlawfully detained two U.S. small boats and their crews, which were exercising innocent passage in Iranian territorial seas. Yet the recent shootdown of the U.S. drone likely arose from a lack of understanding of international aviation law and Iran’s rights and responsibilities as a party to the 1944 Convention on Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention) and the rules promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).