WASHINGTON — Iran’s government confirmed Friday that two of its warplanes fired at a U.S. surveillance drone flying over the Persian Gulf, but contradicted Pentagon claims that the unarmed aircraft — which was not damaged — was in international airspace when attacked.
Iran’s defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, said an unidentified aircraft was detected above Iranian territorial waters on Nov. 1, but it was forced to flee “due to the timely, quick and decisive action of the Iranian armed forces,” according to the official Press TV news agency.
The attack marked the first known episode in which Iranian jets shot at a remotely piloted U.S. spy plane, and it raised tensions in the volatile region. Washington and Tehran broke diplomatic relations in 1979, so the Obama administration has lodged a formal protest via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
Pentagon officials did not initially disclose the attack because, they said, it involved a classified mission. They answered reporters’ questions about it Thursday after news organizations reported the attack.
George Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said two Russian-built SU-25 jets, known as Frogfoots, fired “multiple rounds” at a Predator drone on a surveillance flight 14 miles from Iran’s coast. It’s unclear if they tried to shoot it down and missed, or were firing warning shots.
Little said the jets were under control of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is more powerful and more aggressive than the country’s regular air force. He said the Predator was “never in Iranian airspace.”
In December 2011, an RQ-170 surveillance drone operated by the CIA was downed deep inside Iran. Iran claimed it had hacked the drone’s guidance system and forced it to land, but U.S. officials said it had suffered a technical problem and crashed.
The latest incident underscored the risk of a military confrontation in the stand-off over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. It also posed a new peril to diplomatic talks over the nuclear program, which are expected to resume now that the American election is past.
Lawmaker Mohammed Saleh Jokar said Iran’s military response was justified because the Predator had come to “gather information” according to the official Iranian press.
Diplomats speculated that Iran may have fired the shots to show their unhappiness with U.S. surveillance, but was not trying to destroy the slow-moving drone, which would have risked U.S. retaliation.
Pentagon officials refused to discuss whether destruction of the Predator would have been viewed as an act of war.
“The congested traffic in the Gulf and the various surveillance mechanisms could provoke a conflict that neither side really wants,” said Ray Takeyh, a former Obama administration adviser on Iran. “This is the danger of unmitigated antagonism between U.S. and Iran.”
President Barack Obama vowed repeatedly during the campaign that he would order a military attack on Iran if necessary to stop it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran denies it is seeking to build an atomic bomb. It accuses Washington of trying to oust Iran’s rulers and kill its nuclear scientists.