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Rising tensions? Iranian drone spies on US warship

The Jan. 12 reconnaissance flight by the Iranian Shahed drone was the latest in a series of tense naval encounters between the US Navy and the Islamic republic's military.

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    This still image made from video broadcast on Iranian State television, friday, Jan. 29, 2016 shows what purports to be drone footage of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Iran flew a surveillance drone over a U.S. aircraft carrier and took "precise" photographs of it as part of an ongoing naval drill, state media reported Friday. The U.S. Navy said an unarmed Iranian drone flew near a French and American carrier earlier this month, but couldn't confirm it was the same incident.
    (Iranian State Television via AP)
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An Iranian drone that flew over a U.S. aircraft carrier last month was the first to conduct an overflight of an American carrier since 2014, according to a U.S. Navy report obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The Jan. 12 reconnaissance flight by the Iranian Shahed drone was the latest in a series of tense naval encounters between forces of the Islamic Republic and the U.S. Navy, including the brief detention of 10 American sailors who strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.

All the incidents have come after Iran signed a nuclear deal with world powers including the U.S., and point to lingering tensions between the two playing out in key waterways used to transport oil.

An internal U.S. Navy report on the incident, obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request, said it happened as the USS Harry S. Truman and the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle were 89 nautical miles southwest of the Iranian port of Bushehr. The U.S. Navy also released video it shot of the incident for the first time in response to the AP request.

A French helicopter watched the Shahed-121 drone on the cloudy day and the U.S. Navy dispatched a Seahawk helicopter to film it as it flew over the Truman, a nuclear-powered carrier based out of Norfolk, Virginia.

The U.S. Navy taskforce in the area publicly described the drone's overflight as "safe, routine and professional." But the internal report says the Navy's higher command described it as "safe, abnormal and unprofessional," as Iranian drones seldom fly over American carriers.

U.S. and French sailors repeatedly confirmed that the Iranian drone had its "wings clean," the report said. That means it did not carry weapons and didn't pose a risk to the ship, said Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet based in Bahrain.

"They're operating in international airspace. You can't shoot (it) down; that would be illegal," Stephens said.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard is using similar Shahed-129 drones as ground support to forces fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in Syria, the semi-official Fars news agency reported last week. The difference between the two models was not immediately clear. Iran also said it deployed Shahed drones during war games near the Iranian holy city of Qom that simulated a capture of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque in November.

"Shahed" means "witness" in both Farsi and Arabic.

The last Iranian drone overflight of an American aircraft carrier happened in September 2014 and involved the USS George H.W. Bush, according to the report. That happened as the U.S. and other world powers were in the midst of negotiating a final agreement over the fate of Iran's disputed nuclear program. An interim agreement had been reached to limit the program the previous year, but neither side had been able to finalize the deal by a June 2014 deadline, leading talks to be extended.

In January, Iranian state television aired footage it said came from a drone overflight of an American carrier. The footage, which the AP could not independently verify, purported to show the drone being launched and then hovering over an unidentified aircraft carrier, a targeting bracket briefly passing over a jet parked on the deck below.

Iran has more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) of shoreline facing the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. Control of that territory, including the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly a third of all oil traded by sea passes, has remained a priority for Iran's military, and it conducts regular drills in the region.

American and Iranian forces clashed in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. On April 18, 1988, U.S. forces attacked two Iranian oil rigs and sank or damaged six Iranian vessels in response to the near-sinking of the missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts by an Iranian mine. A few months later, in July 1988, the USS Vincennes in the strait mistook an Iran Air flight heading to Dubai for an attacking fighter jet, shooting down the plane and killing all 290 passengers and crew onboard.

The U.S. has criticized some of Iran's recent maneuvers in the Gulf, including what it called a "highly provocative" Iranian rocket test in December near the USS Harry S. Truman, the USS Bulkeley destroyer, the French FS Provence frigate and commercial traffic in the strait.

A second report obtained Wednesday by the AP on that incident named the commercial ships nearby as the M/V Glovis Pacific, a car carrier, and the M/V SPF Prudencia, an oil tanker. The report suggested that the rocket fire was meant to "intimidate" the U.S. warships, a test Stephens called extremely dangerous given the close military and commercial traffic nearby.

"You're one broken rocket fin away from creating a serious international incident that could have had unfortunate consequences," the commander said.

Meanwhile, the lifting of sanctions after the nuclear deal, provides more revenue for military purchases. 

Iran will sign a contract with Russia for the purchase of Sukhoi-30 fighter jets,Iran's defense minister said Wednesday.

In comments published on the ministry of defense website, Gen. Hossein Dehghan did not specify how many fighter planes Iran will buy, or give a timeline for the signing of the deal. However, he said that under the agreement Iran would also be involved in the production of the aircraft.

Iran needs to "seriously focus on the air force and fighters," he said. "We are moving toward a contract. We told them that we need to be involved in the production (of the plane) as well."

Iran's acquisition is significant given its role as a regional power in the volatile Middle East, where it is backing opposite sides in conflicts in Yemen and Syria to its longtime rival Saudi Arabia.

The fighter jet is believed to be comparable to the American F-15E fighter bomber.

Iran's air force still heavily depends on domestically modified versions of long-outdated warplanes, including former Soviet MiGs and American F14A Tomcats from the 1970s.

Dehghan also rejected reports that Iran has negotiated the purchase of J10 fighter jets from China.

Russia has already started delivering S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran. The advanced defensive weapons system deal was frozen in 2010 due to U.N sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin approved delivery of the air defense missile system in April 2015, a move that will significantly bolster the Islamic Republic's military capability.

Dehghan said the first Iranian crews, who have been trained in Russia, will return home within the next two or three days and another group will be dispatched for training subsequently.

Iranian efforts to build up its air power is mostly a homegrown project, tweaking older technology or using domestic know-how to build its first generations of spy and attack drones. Iran has also made progress in developing its missile program.

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Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report.

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