According to Pentagon sources, an unprecedented Iranian attack aircraft fired at least twice at an unarmed U.S. drone conducting routine surveillance in international airspace over the Persian Gulf, just before 5:00 AM on November 1.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the drone was about 16 miles off the Iranian coast when the Russian-made SU-25 Frogfoot warplane intercepted it and opened fire.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Little said, “Our aircraft was never in Iranian air space. It was always flying in international air space. The United States has communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters over the Arabian Gulf, consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region.”
Little said the incident was not disclosed sooner because the military does not discuss classified surveillance missions, but he agreed to answer questions after news reports revealed the shooting. Media analysts have speculated that public disclosure of the Iranian attack was intentionally suppressed by the White House so as not to distract President Obama from campaigning in the days immediately preceding the election. “The last thing that President Obama needed a week before Election Day was a rattled American electorate,” explained a media source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Going public with information about the Iranian attack when it occurred would have taken him away from the campaign trail and back to the White House where he’d have to calm the American people and deal with a major foreign policy crisis.”
The Pentagon has stated that the Iranian warplane made at least two passes alongside the slower-moving drone, firing “multiple rounds.” Little said that once the Predator drone came under fire, it began to move further out and the Iranian aircraft continued to pursue it “for some period of time before letting it return to base.” The Iranian plane did not follow the drone all the way back to its base, Little said, declining to say where that base was. He said there was no other United States aircraft nearby that could respond to the attack, and added that the U.S. believes Iran was trying to shoot the drone down. The intercept was the first time Tehran had fired at an unmanned U.S. aircraft in their 33- year stand-off with America.
According to a Reuters news agency report, Iran said it would directly confront any foreign infringement into its airspace. “The defenders of the Islamic Republic will respond decisively to any form of encroachment by air, sea or on the ground,” Fars news agency quoted General Massoud Jazayeri, a senior armed forces commander, as saying last Friday. “If any foreign aircraft attempts to enter our airspace, our armed forces will deal with them,” he said. Jazayeri did not mention the drone incident specifically.
Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, claimed that an unidentified aircraft had entered Iranian airspace, but had been “forced to flee due to the prompt, smart and decisive action of Iran’s armed forces.” Vahidi did not make clear whether the Revolutionary Guard jets had meant to actually hit the drone or were just firing warning shots.
Little said the United States government had registered a formal protest to the Iranians over the incident. Asked about possible U.S. responses he said: “We have a wide range of options from diplomatic to military,” although he would not say whether there were actual plans in the works for a military response. Asked if this should be considered an act of war, Little said he didn’t want to get into “legal characterizations” of the event.
The Pentagon announced the incident as the administration imposed a new round of financial sanctions against Iranian officials and entities. They marked the first sanctions since President Obama’s re-election Tuesday. According to the Treasury Department, the move was “related to the Iranian government’s human rights abuses, its support of terrorism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
This is the second incident involving a U.S. drone and Iran. In December 2011 a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone equipped with stealth technology was captured in eastern Iran. Tehran claims it brought down the aircraft, but U.S. officials said the drone malfunctioned and had to land.
After initially saying only that a drone had been lost near the Afghan-Iran border, American officials eventually confirmed the plane was monitoring Iran’s military and nuclear facilities. Washington asked for it back but Iran refused, and instead released photos of Iranian officials studying the aircraft.