Iran Fires on US Predator Drone: An Armed Conflict?

by Jessica Poarch

This morning, CNN reported that last Thursday (1 November 2012), Iranian fighter jets fired on a U.S. Predator drone. The Iranian government claims that the drone was fired on after it had entered Iranian airspace; however, the Pentagon’s official statement is that the drone was past the 12 nautical mile limit and was therefore over international waters when fired upon. The drone was not damaged.

With the amount of tension surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, the question of whether or not this action constitutes an armed conflict is interesting. An International Armed Conflict (IAC) is (1) a conflict between States that (2) leads to the intervention of armed forces (for more information on the types of armed conflicts, see the “LOAC Basics” tab above).

Determining whether or not an IAC could exist in this circumstance requires meeting both prongs of the definition laid out above.

(1) I think the fact that there is a conflict between the U.S. and Iran is a given, globally with issues over the Iranian nuclear program and locally over the issue of airspace. Further, (2) the intervention of armed force by Iran is also clear as the attackers were fighter jets flown by Iranian military pilots.

If we assume these two prongs are conclusively established, the question becomes whether or not we need two armed parties in order to have an armed conflict? CNN’s article calls the drone a “U.S. Air Force drone,” so for the sake of argument, we will say that this drone is considered to be a part of the U.S. military forces (thereby eliminating the other looming questions of who is driving and regulating the drone). However, if the drone is not armed and is only doing surveillance, is it considered a party to the “intervention of armed forces”?

In reality, the question of whether firing on the drone constitutes an IAC or not is moot as the armed conflict, if there was one, is now over, and its limited duration lead to no meaningful application for the rest of the LOAC. Nevertheless, as students of the law and observers of international relations, we must take note of this event, hoping that it is just another example of the growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and not the first shots fired in America’s next major conflict in the Middle East.

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