Iran’s Revolutionary Guards proudly proclaimed yesterday they had captured a small US drone over Gulf waters after it “intruded” into Iranian airspace on a spying mission. The US navy promptly denied it had lost any unmanned aircraft in the area.
The conflicting accounts left open the possibility that Iran plucked the drone from the sea in the past and paraded it for maximum effect following escalating tensions over US surveillance missions in the Gulf.
Other countries in the region also have Boeing-made ScanEagle drones.
Cmdr Jason Salata, a spokesman for the US navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said some of its drones “have been lost into the water” over the years but there is “no record of that occurring most recently”.
Revelling in its propaganda, Iranian state television stations broadcast triumphant footage of Admiral Ali Fadavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards naval forces, inspecting the supposedly captured drone, which was suspended intact inside a hangar.
In the background was a large map of the Gulf showing the drone’s alleged path of entry into Iranian airspace and stamped with the declaration in English: “We shall trample on the US.”
The incident highlighted rising tensions between Iran and the US, already locked in intensifying shadow war involving cyber-attacks, bombings and assassinations.
Even so, many analysts believe such pressures are unlikely to derail a renewed diplomatic drive to defuse the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iran and six world powers, including the US, are due in coming weeks to re-engage in the negotiations.
“If the Iranians had shot at an American F-16 fighter plane, the chances of a confrontation would be far higher but this was an unarmed drone with no pilot,” Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya in Israel, said.
Iran did not say exactly when, where or how the drone was captured but suggested it had taken off from a US aircraft carrier.
In December last year, Iran captured a much larger and more sophisticated US stealth drone, a bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel that was monitoring its nuclear facilities. Tehran claimed its cyber warriors had brought down the aircraft intact, while Washington said the drone had malfunctioned and was forced to land.
Mr Fadavi claimed Iran’s keyboard fighters now had scored a similar victory now by forcing the ScanEagle drone to “land electronically”’.
Early last month, just days before the US presidential elections, Iranian warplanes fired on but did not hit a US Predator drone that Tehran claimed had violated its airspace. Washington insisted the unarmed drone was at all times in international airspace.
The US relies on drones, which are capable of intercepting mobile hone calls and electronic communications, to garner intelligence from Iran because it has few assets on the ground there.
Iran last month wrote to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to complain about repeated violations of Iranian airspace by US drones, describing them as “illegal and provocative acts”. Tehran alleged that US aircraft had entered southern Iran seven times in October around Bushehr, where Iran’s only nuclear power station is situated.
A senior Iranian lawmaker, Esmaeel Kosari, boasted yesterday that the drone’s capture was a “source of pride for our armed forces” and warned of “decisive confrontation” if Iranian airspace was violated again.
Mr Javedanfar said there was a greater danger that skirmishes between Revolutionary Guard speedboats and “big US navy Ships” in the Gulf might inadvertently escalate into a full-blown military confrontation.
Iran last year rebuffed a US proposal to establish a military-to-military hotline between the two countries to prevent any such misunderstandings. Tehran believed any such agreement would be a tacit acknowledgement of the US’s “illegitimate presence” in the Gulf.