The nation’s top military officer kept a focus on Iran Monday even as he joined a post-election Far East swing with top defense and diplomatic officials to highlight the Obama administration’s intended strategic shift to the Pacific region.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the firing last week by Iranian warplanes on an unarmed U.S. Air Force Predator drone over the Persian Gulf was “clearly a hostile act” but the U.S. would take a “measured response” to the incident.
Dempsey said the drone flights over the Gulf would continue and suggested that U.S. fighter aircraft in the region would be prepared to respond to an attack. But Dempsey left wiggle room to avoid a confrontation, saying that the U.S. and Iran differed on how the 12 nautical mile limit on sovereign air and sea space was interpreted.
According to the Pentagon’s account, the Predator was on a routine surveillance mission at about 4:50 a.m. EST over the Persian Gulf on Nov. 1 and was operating at a distance of about 16 miles off the Iranian coastline when two of Iran’s aging, Soviet– made Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes approached.
At least one of the single-seat Sukhois fired “multiple rounds” at the Predator from its wing-mounted, twin-barrel, 30mm AQ-17A mini-gun, but missed its target. The slow-moving Predator moved further off the coastline but the Sukhois pursued and one of them fired and missed again, Pentagon officials said.
The Nov. 1 Persian Gulf incident was not disclosed until Nov. 8, two days after the election, and the aggressive action by Iran has now become part of a mix of national security events that Congressional Republicans have claimed were kept under wraps to aid in President Obama’s re-election. Critics of the administration have also focused on the timeline of the Benghazi consulate attack and the scandal over CIA Director David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer.
Dempsey made his comments on Iran to the Armed Forces Press Service on the plane taking him to Perth, Australia, where he was joining Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in meetings with Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The group will also go to Thailand and Cambodia to discuss the U.S. “Pacific pivot.”
The military re-balance is part of a deliberate process that will take years and that the administration has insisted is not meant to confront China. “We are playing the long game here,” said a senior defense official traveling with Panetta.
“The resources are moving,” the official told AFPS, and “the engagement of senior-level officials is there, and the bureaucratic weight and the time, attention and resources of the United States government are moving toward the Pacific theater.”
But the administration is also committed to the indefinite deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf region to counter Iran’s nuclear buildup and threats to shut down the oil lifeline through the Straits of Hormuz.
Iran on Monday began major air defense exercises meant to send a “strong warning” to the U.S. and Israel against military action, the website of Iran’s Revolutional Guards said.
The exercises will test “fixed, mobile and tactical radar devices and tactical and airborne electronic surveillance systems,” said Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, head of the Guards’ air defense command.
The U.S. has been broaching what has been termed a “more for more” diplomatic solution to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons through a new round of negotiations with the P5 plus one – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.
Under the proposed deal, Iran would gain more in the way of eased economic sanctions in return for more safeguards and international monitoring to ensure that its nuclear programs are used for peaceful purposes.
At a World Affairs Council forum last Friday, Dennis Ross, a former top Mideast negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, said Iran recently has been sending signals “to position themselves to justify a new negotiation.”
The economic sanctions have been hitting hard, Ross said.
“Every month, their currency is devalued by half,” Ross said. “I do see a diplomatic way out.”