The Pentagon revealed on Thursday that two Iranian fighter jets fired on an unarmed US Predator drone in the Gulf last week, but the aircraft was not hit, in an incident that underscored tensions in the region.
The incident occurred on Nov. 1 — less than a week before the US’ presidential election — but the Pentagon kept it quiet until reports of the confrontation leaked out.
“They intercepted the aircraft and fired multiple rounds,” spokesman George Little told a news conference.
The Su-25 Frogfoot fighters, much faster than the slow-moving turboprop drone, fired at least twice and made two passes, he said.
It was unclear whether the Iranians intended to warn off the unmanned drone, but Little said: “Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down.”
The confrontation threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to defuse a mounting crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, amid a shadow war of cyberattacks, bombings and assassinations.
Tough new sanctions led by Washington are squeezing Iran’s economy, while the US and Israel are accused of staging cybersabotage on Tehran’s uranium enrichment plants.
The US military drone was “never in Iranian air space” and came under fire from the fighter jets off the Iranian coast over international waters, Little said.
The robotic Predator aircraft was conducting “routine surveillance” and the US has told Iran it has no plans to suspend the flights, he said.
“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,” he said.
In a warning to Tehran, the Pentagon spokesman said the US was prepared to safeguard its forces.
“We have a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military, to protect our military assets and our forces in the region, and will do so when necessary,” Little said.
The MQ-1 drone was pursued further by the Iranian warplanes, but was not fired on again, he said.
The Predator later returned safely to an unspecified military base in the region following the incident.
The Predator — known as the weapon of choice in the US bombing campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan — was intercepted about 16 nautical miles (29.6km) off the Iranian coast, beyond the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles off the country’s shore.
Iranian military speedboats have sometimes swarmed US warships in the Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for the world’s oil, but the incident last week was the first involving a US drone in a confrontation with Iranian aircraft, officials said.