Seated on the floor of a villa in northeast Tehran around a tablecloth spread with platters of saffron chicken and rice with barberries, about 30 officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and guests gathered Thursday night for a prayerful celebration.
“A special blessing for the commander who ordered the attack on the American drone and for the fighters who carried it out,” a preacher declared, as recalled by one of the guests present, who said a raucous chorus of “amen” arose from the room.
Their success earlier that day at shooting down an unmanned American Global Hawk surveillance drone (list price $131 million) surprised even some leaders of the Revolutionary Guards. They had wondered themselves whether they could hit an American target so high in the sky, according to the guest.
In fact, the Revolutionary Guards sought to take out the drone in large part to prove they could do it, according to that guest and four other Iranians, including two senior current members. The others were two former Guard members and one who is affiliated with the elite military unit, which reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and operates outside the control of Iranian elected officials.
Guard leaders, these people said, had been incensed by recent statements from American officials belittling Iran’s military prowess, like an accusation by Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, that Iran had “photoshopped antiquated aircraft” to overstate its capabilities.
And now, these people said, the Guard leaders feel even further vindicated by the news that — as they celebrated into the night in Tehran — President Trump was simultaneously pulling back at the last minute from a retaliatory airstrike he had ordered just hours before.
While Mr. Trump’s advisers have argued his contemplation of a strike should stand as a warning to Iran, some Guard leaders appear to have concluded the opposite: that Mr. Trump is determined to avoid a fight, and that the downing of the drone has strengthened their hand in any future negotiations.
“What happened in the past 48 hours was extremely important in showing Iran’s strength and forcing the U.S. to recalculate,” said Naser Imani, a political analyst who was formerly a member of the Revolutionary Guards’ political bureau. “No matter how you look at it, Iran won.”
How widely or deeply those sentiments are shared within the Iranian government could not be determined. Discussions within the Revolutionary Guards, a powerful wing of Iran’s armed forces, are highly secretive, and the people who described those discussions spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The public bravado of voices close to the Revolutionary Guards, like Mr. Imani, may mask deeper worries about the superior strength of the American military.
Jack Keane, a retired general with close ties to Mr. Trump, said Friday that American intelligence had learned that “Iranian national leaders” — including at least one senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards — “were frustrated or furious with the tactical commander who made the decision to shoot down the American drone.”
Any indications of the thinking among Revolutionary Guards leaders, though, are significant in part because of its singular role in both the formulation and execution of Iranian national security and foreign policy.
It is the branch of the Iranian military that operates around the region, often training and arming local militias to thwart American policies or interests in places like Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. The Trump administration, as part of its intensified sanctions against Iran, designated the Guard as a foreign terrorist organization in April.
The Guard controls its own business empire, collaborates with hard-line political factions, and commands “a loud voice” in the council that controls any use of Iranian military power, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.
“The I.R.G.C. is the tip of the spear,” Mr. Vaez said, arguing that “the risk of Trump’s Iran policy is in fact that it empowers the I.R.G.C. because the more the country is threatened, the more the I.R.G.C. is empowered.”
Although the Guard has backed local militias in Iraq who attacked American soldiers, the organization itself has almost never hit American targets directly.
This was not the first time the Guard has claimed triumph in downing an unarmed American drone. In 2011, its computer hackers evidently sabotaged a radar-evading RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone, which American officials said had been flying over Afghanistan but ended up landing in northern Iran because of a malfunction.
The United States did not retaliate for the loss of the drone. President Obama said the United States had “asked for it back,” but the Iranians instead claimed to have reverse engineered it and even produced toy replicas for children.
Until recently, Guard commanders and other Iranian leaders had appeared to refrain from direct confrontations with the United States military, even after President Trump withdrew last May from the 2015 deal to lift economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program and began to reimpose harsh sanctions.
The Guard’s naval forces continued to avoid skirmishes with United States forces in the Persian Gulf that had once been a regular occurrence. And the Guard declined any attempt to retaliate against Israel after it repeatedly attacked Guard operations inside Syria, analysts said.
That posture changed in the past few months when the Trump administration designated the Guard as a terrorist group and added sanctions to block Iran’s oil sales, a critical revenue source for the country.
With oil revenue plummeting while unemployment and inflation were soaring, Iranian leaders denounced the sanctions as economic warfare and declared that they would take steps to restart their nuclear program.
The United States has also accused Iran of planting naval mines that damaged six tankers in two incidents in the waters around the Persian Gulf, and Western officials say those attacks were carried out by the Revolutionary Guards — although Iranian leaders have disclaimed responsibility.
The United States Cyber Command on Thursday conducted online attacks against an Iranian intelligence group that American officials believe helped plan the attacks against oil tankers, according to people briefed on the operation.
As tensions escalated, Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican and a leading advocate of confronting Iran, raised alarms in Tehran by declaring in a television interview in May that a war with Iran would require only “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike.”
Then this month, Mr. Hook, the United States special envoy for Iran, seemed to all but dismiss Iranian defenses and accuse Tehran of lying about them.
“Iran has photoshopped images of missile launches to try and show its increased missile capability,” Mr. Hook said in a video message released by the State Department.
Their comments — both quickly derided in Iranian state media — helped convince Guard leaders to show off their missiles to deter an attack, according to several Iranians in or close to the Guard.
“American officials like Mssrs. Hook and Cotton are underestimating Iran’s military capabilities,” said Foad Izadi, a conservative professor at Tehran University and a commentator for Guard publications. “This is an impression that Iranian leaders wanted to correct. Iran needed to send this message to the other side that attacking us would be extremely costly.”
Perhaps because of the mild response to the hacking of the surveillance drone in 2011, many of the Guard officials who gathered in celebration on Thursday expressed surprise at the level of American outrage over the takedown of another one, according to the person who attended the dinner.
Throughout the day and through the celebration, this person said, Guard officials nervously checked their mobile devices for news from Washington and signs that a military attack might be coming.
Iranian officials soon began to say publicly that they had consciously hit only an unmanned drone but had refrained from attacking an American spy plane nearby in part because it carried 35 crew members.
“We could have hit that plane,” Gen. Abulfazl Hajizadeh of the Guard’s air force said, according to Iranian state media. “It was our right but we struck the drone with no passengers.”
American officials said the spy plane was outside Iranian air space and could not hold so large a crew.
Western analysts said they doubted claims that Guard leaders had failed to anticipate the severity of the American reaction to shooting down the drone, noting the caustic warnings recently issued by John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mr. Trump himself.
“To say that they were surprised is just inaccurate,” Mr. Vaez of the International Crisis Group said.
Some current and former American military officials, though, said they had also concluded that the Guard did not foresee the backlash.
“This wasn’t a mistake” or “some rogue guy just pushing a button,” said retired Vice Admiral John W. Miller, a former commander of the American Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. “It was a complex accomplishment by Iran that was well planned,” he said, but “a miscalculation.”
Still, at the celebratory dinner Thursday night, exultant Guard leaders bragged that they had done it with an Iranian-made missile instead of one acquired from the Russians or Chinese, according to the person present. That claim that could not be independently confirmed, but it was repeated Saturday in the Iranian state media.
“Bolton and Hook keep whispering in Trump’s ears that Iran is all show-off and if you attack it, the regime will fold like puff pastry,” the host of the event, Col. Gholamreza Ashrafi, told his guests, according to the person present. “We showed that we are no puff pastry.”
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