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Iran Special: "Iranian Fighters Fire on US Drone" --- What is the Connection with US-Iran Nuclear Talks?

Iran displays a US drone after it crashed in the east of the country in November 2011

The significant story from Iran this week has been the continued political signals for renewed talks on the Iranian nuclear programme, not only with the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) but also directly with American officials. Officials like Mohammad Javad Larijani, brother of the head of judiciary and the Speaker of Parliament, have indicated --- after issuing ritual denuncations of the American foe --- that Tehran will speak with the US "even in the bottom of hell". On Thursday, President Ahmadinejad tried to seize the limelight --- and any eventual credit --- with his own reference to discussions.

At one point on Wednesday, it appeared that Western media would pick up the signals. Marcus George of Reuters, in a story noted widely, wrote that President Obama's re-election opened up the possibilities for talks. Even though the Reuters article missed the bigger point --- the "back-channel" discussions between Tehran and Washington have already started, to the point where the Supreme Leader's top advisor met American officials in Qatar in early October --- it put the spotlight on the diplomatic front.

But on Thursday, that spotlight was turned from diplomacy to confrontation. First, the Obama Administration celebrated its re-election with the announcement that nine Iranian officials and entities --- including Minister of Communications Reza Taghipour, Ali Fazli, deputy commander of the Basij militia, and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance ---" target="_blank">would be sanctioned. Interestingly, the measures were announced not only in connection with the nuclear programme, but also with claimed  "abuses carried out against ordinary Iranians".

David Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary overseeing sanctions, put out the line, "Today's designations further demonstrate our resolve to put a stop to the Iranian regime's continued efforts to deny the Iranian people access to information and the ability to speak freely. We will continue to expose this repressive behavior, as well as Iran's continued proliferation activities and support to terrorists worldwide."

Then the Pentagon made sure that the headlines were far from US-Iran talks. Three "senior officials" told CNN that two Iranian fighters fired last on an unmanned US drone, "in international waters east of Kuwait". They added colourful detail: "At least two bursts of gunfire came from the Su-25s' cannons. The drone started to move away but the Iranian aircraft chased it, doing aerial loops around it before breaking away and returning to Iran."

After the story raced across the media, a spokesman confirmed the incident: "Our aircraft was never in Iranian airspace. It was always flying in international air space. The recognized limit is 12 nautical miles off the coast and we never entered the 12 nautical mile limit."

Now the question beyond the incident: why is news of it emerging now?

One theory, put forward by an EA reader in the Comments section yesterday, is that a faction within the regime --- presumably the Revolutionary Guards, who control the fighters --- wanted to shut down any chatter about US-Iran negotiations.

The problem for me with the explanation is that any planned move by the Guards would either have the backing of the Supreme Leader's office or defy it: I cannot see the latter, and the former hypothesis seems to be undercut by the continuing signals from the regime in favour of talks. Perhaps the leadership is posing with a bit of strength even as it engages Washington; more likely is that this was a chance military skirmish which the regime wishes to keep quiet.

Instead, given the timing of the officials' leak to CNN and the far-from-coincidental declaration of more sanctions, my attention turns to the US. Clearly, Washington hopes to put a bit of pressure on Tehran with yesterday's developments.

But should this pressure be seen as prodding of the Islamic Republic, hoping to keep the talks moving while ensuring that the US has the upper hand? Or is it being applied because the back-channel discussions of September-October broke down, without any apparent path to agreement and thus a renewal of high-level, public negotiations?

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