Iranian forces downed US drone, raising fears of major military confrontation between Tehran and Washington in the Gulf.
US President Donald Trump has warned Iran it “made a very big mistake” in shooting down a US military drone, as Tehran condemned Washington’s “new aggression” and pledged to defend its skies, land and waters.
The war of words on Thursday came after Washington said one of its drones had been downed in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.
But Tehran disputed where the incident took place, saying the RQ-4 Global Hawk had violated Iranian airspace over the southern coastal province of Hormozgan.
The incident marked the first direct Iranian-claimed attack on US assets amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran, triggered by Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from an international accord that curbed Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The downing of the drone was also the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf since mid-May, including suspected attacks on six oil tankers that the US blamed on Iran.
Tehran denied involvement, but Washington has boosted its military presence in the Gulf, citing unspecified threats from Iran. All of this has raised fears that a miscalculation or a further rise in frictions could push the US and Iran into a military confrontation.
“Iran made a very big mistake,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
“This country will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”
Asked if the US would respond, Trump told reporters, “You’ll soon find out”. But he also appeared to downplay the incident, saying it could have been a mistake by someone who was “loose and stupid”.
“I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody who should not have been doing,” he said.
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it shot down the drone at 4:05 am local time on Thursday when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Hormozgan. Iran used its air defence system known as Third of Khordad to shoot down the drone – a truck-based missile system that can fire up to 30km high, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency, citing the IRGC, identified the drone as an RQ-4 Global Hawk, which can cost up to $150m apiece and can fly higher than 16km and stay in the air for over 24 hours at a time.
But the US CENTCOM called the Iranian reports “false”, saying the incident “was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.”
The unmanned aircraft was 34km from the nearest Iranian territory when it was hit, said Joseph Guastella, commander of CENTCOM. He called the shootdown “an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce”.
Independent confirmation of the drone’s location when it was brought down was not immediately available.
Justin Bronk, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, described the US drone as “very sophisticated” and said it was unlikely that the unmanned aircraft would have strayed accidentally into Iranian airspace.
“It’s got extremely powerful terrain and maritime surveillance mapping radar, as well as electro-optical and infrared sensors. So it has a very sophisticated set of sensors to tell it exactly where it is at any given time,” he said.
“This is the one of the least likely drones in the world to get lost … So that leaves you with either the Iranians shooting it down in international airspace, as a controlled escalation or warning to the US and international community that the status quo with the sanctions, particularly on oil exports is intolerable. Or you could argue, potentially that the drone strayed into Iranian airspace deliberately,” he said.
The latter explanation was less likely, he said, because the drone “is a very expensive and relatively scarce asset,” meaning “the US would be more than symbolically annoyed at losing it.”
In Washington, Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Republican ally of Trump, said the president’s “options are running out” and that the US and Iran were “one step closer” to conflict.
But Trump’s opponent, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, warned that “there’s no appetite for wanting to go to war in our country”. Senator Chuck Shumer, also a Democrat, accused the president of “driving us toward another endless conflict in the Middle East”.
‘Borders are our red line’
In Iran, General Hossein Salami, the IRGC commander, said Iran did not seek war with any country, but “we are fully ready for war”. Speaking to a crowd in the western city of Sanandaj, Salami described the American drone as “violating our national security border.”
“Borders are our red line,” Salami said. “Any enemy that violates the borders will be annihilated.”
Iran’s foreign ministry separately protested against the drone, with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the country’s top diplomat, also saying Tehran would go to the United Nations to prove its case.
“We’ll take this new aggression to UN & show that the US is lying about international waters,” he tweeted. “We don’t seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters.”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for caution, warning any war between Iran and the US would be a “catastrophe for the region as a minimum”.
Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main Gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behaviour” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps.
“When you interfere with international shipping it has an impact on the supply of energy, it has an impact on the price of oil which has an impact on the world economy. It essentially affects almost every person on the globe,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in London.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said he was concerned by the latest incident, and called on all parties to “exercise maximum restraint and avoid any action that could inflame the situation”.
Tensions between Iran and the US have increased since last year when Trump unilaterally pulled Washington out of a nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in 2015.
Since its withdrawal, Washington has reimposed and tightened sanctions on Tehran in a “maximum pressure” campaign it said was aimed at curbing its nuclear and ballistic missiles programme.
Responding to the move, Iran has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. On Monday, Iran gave the pact’s remaining signatories 10 days to deliver on promised economic benefits, saying it will otherwise breach its uranium stockpile limit mandated by the accord.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies