Iranian commanders said they are ready for "any threat" to Iran's borders, just days after Iranian military jets shot at an unmanned American drone conducting clandestine surveillance off Iran's southwest coast.
The Pentagon announced Thursday that an unarmed MQ-1 Predator drone engaged in a routine but "classified surveillance mission" was shot at by two Iranian Su-25 jet fighters over international waters, 16 miles off the Iranian shore.
Iran’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi confirmed the incident today, but stated explicitly that the “unidentified aircraft” was in fact flying over Iranian waters – less than 12 nautical miles from the coastline.
“Due to the timely, smart and decisive action of the Iranian Armed Forces, [it] was forced to flee,” General Vahidi said, according to a Defense Ministry statement. “This experience and previous incidents show that the Islamic Republic of Iran vigilantly and precisely monitors all movements [of its enemies] and takes decisive, necessary and timely actions.”
Vahidi’s comments followed those of another general, who said today Iran would take on any intruder.
“If any aircraft seeks to enter our country’s airspace, our armed forces will confront it,” said deputy chairman of the Iran Chiefs of Staff Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri. Iran would “firmly” respond to any ground, sea, or air "invasion.”
The near-clash comes at a moment of heightened tension and expectations between Iran, the US, Israel, and Western powers. Secret US-Iran meetings have reportedly preceded a resumption of talks later this month about Iran’s controversial nuclear program; the US is imposing more sanctions, and Iran has been the target of a lethal covert war.
The latest incident recalled the loss of a CIA Stealth drone deep inside Iranian territory last December. US officials said it crashed, but Iran announced it had caught the drone in an "electronic ambush." An Iranian engineer told the Monitor how Iran brought it down largely intact by incrementally "spoofing" the bird's GPS system.
Until that point, the very existence of the CIA's bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel drone – never mind its operations over Iran – was classified.
Iran poised for war games
On the eve of what Iranian media billed as a "massive nationwide [military] manuever," top Iranian officers said their forces were ready, as rhetoric about a US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities has surged in recent months.
"The air defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran fully resists against any threat and uses its utmost capacity to counter threats," Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, the chief of the Khatam al-Anbiya Air Defense Base Command, was reported today as saying by Iran's official IRNA news agency.
Iran's official PressTV reported that the "Defenders of Velayat Skies 4" maneuver would cover 850,000 square kilometers in eastern Iran, and would "display the full strength and preparedness of Iran's air defense forces to defend the Islamic Republic's eastern borders."
Pentagon: 'no precedence for this'
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the Iranian planes fired at least twice at the slow-moving drone and pursued it for several miles as it moved away. He said at no point did the Predator enter Iranian airspace.
"There is absolutely no precedence for this. This is the first time that a [drone] has been fired upon to our knowledge by Iranian aircraft," said Mr. Little.
When he was asked if the Iranians might have fired only warning shots, Little replied: "Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down. You'll have to ask Iranians why they engaged in this action."
While both sides have engaged in heated rhetoric over Iran's controversial nuclear program, neither announced the drone incident last week until CNN broke the news on Thursday.
CNN reported a senior US official saying: "At least two bursts of gunfire came from the Su-25s' cannons. The drone started to move away but the Iranian aircraft chased it, doing aerial loops around it before breaking away and returning to Iran."
At a press briefing Thursday, Little said the Pentagon considered media reports "an unauthorized disclosure of classified information," and that the US military did not announce the Nov. 1 incident because "we routinely do not advertise our classified surveillance missions."
No independent verification
There was no way to independently confirm the Pentagon's account, and correct facts have not always been initially forthcoming in past US-Iran incidents in the Persian Gulf.
The Pentagon announced in January 2008, for example, that several of its warships had been harassed by five armed Iranian speed boats. It released a video of the incident, in which a voice was heard to say: "I am coming at you. You will explode...."
The Pentagon first announced that US officers – after seeing suspicious packages dropped into the water – were on the verge of opening fire; one ship commander later denied that.
Likewise, the source of the "voice" was never confirmed to have come from the Iranian boats, though its presence was used to heighten the drama of media reports.
Two decades earlier, the US Navy was found to have covered up critical details of the 1988 shooting down by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian commercial jet over the Persian Gulf, which killed all 290 on board.
A Newsweek investigation found the official Pentagon investigation to be a "pastiche of omission, half-truths, and outright deceptions" that amounted to a "cover-up approved at the top."
Among a host of other issues, the US Navy attempted to prove to Congress – using altered maps – that the USS Vincennes was in international waters at the time, when it was in fact inside Iranian waters, in violation of international law.
In the Predator incident, CNN reported on Thursday that onboard still and video cameras recorded the incident, along with, presumably, its precise coordinates.
The drone incident last week comes as Iran has been targeted by a covert war in recent years, which has included assassinations of a number of scientists linked to its nuclear program, a host of unexplained explosions at facilities, espionage, and the use of computer viruses to disrupt uranium enrichment efforts.
Iran blames the US and Israel for the killings and other events.
The US, in turn, accuses the Revolutionary Guard Qods Force of engineering a plot to kill the Saudi Arabia ambassador, using an Iranian-American car salesman as a go between with Mexican drug cartel hit men. Mansour Arbabsiar pleaded guilty at the New York federal court last month, and faces 25 years in prison.
The upcoming Iranian maneuver is the latest of a series of large-scale Iranian war games in the past year, meant to deter a US or Israeli attack. Iranian commanders said "various long-range radars and electronic surveillance systems will be tested during the drill," PressTV reported.
"We have communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters over the Arabian Gulf consistent with longstanding practice," said Little, using a term for the Persian Gulf at odds with most maps and frequently contested by Iran.
The Predator incident was made public as both sides jockeyed before an expected resumption of nuclear talks later this month.
Senior US and Iranian officials are reported to have met secretly in Qatar in October. After President Obama's reelection, Iranian officials sent mixed messages, castigating US sanctions policies toward Iran while also saying direct talks were "not taboo."
Washington sent its own message on Thursday by imposing further sanctions on individuals and entities in Iran. One target was Iran's censorship apparatus and Minister of Communications Reza Taghipour, for ordering the jamming of foreign satellite broadcasts.
The American measures aimed to "draw the world's attention to the scope of the regime's insidious actions, which oppress its own people and violate Iran's own laws" and have sought to create "an 'electronic curtain' to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world," the US State Department said in a statement.
Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott