US Navy says Iran seized, then released US marine drone
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards seized a US marine drone in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday and attempted to tow it away, only releasing the unmanned vessel when a warship and a helicopter approached. U.S. Navy, officials said.
The incident marks the first time the Navy’s new 5th Fleet drone task force based in the Middle East has been targeted by Iran.
Although the interception ended without incident, tensions remain high between Washington and Tehran as negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers hang in the balance.
The Guard’s warship Shahid Baziar tied a line to the Saildrone Explorer in the central Persian Gulf in international waters late Monday evening, said Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, 5th Fleet spokesman. The ship then began towing the Saildrone Explorer, which carries cameras, radars and sensors to remotely monitor the sea, Hawkins said.
The USS Thunderbolt, a Navy coastal patrol vessel, along with an MH-60 Seahawk helicopter moved in to watch the Guard ship. The Navy radioed the Shahid Baziar to identify the drone as American, Hawkins said.
“Our response was one that, as such, made it clear that it was owned by the US government and operated in international waters and that we intended to take action if necessary,” the commander told the Associated Press.
Hawkins said the incident ended peacefully after about four hours as the Iranians unhooked the drone’s tow line and left the area as US forces stood nearby.
US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who heads the Army’s Central Command, praised the Thunderbolt crew for their response.
“This incident demonstrates once again the continuation of Iran’s destabilizing, illegal and unprofessional activities in the Middle East,” he said in a statement.
Iran’s paramilitary guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not acknowledge the incident. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 5th Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year. The 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.
It also extends to the Red Sea near the Suez Canal, the Egyptian waterway connecting the Middle East to the Mediterranean, and the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb off Yemen.
It also represents a region that has seen a series of attacks at sea in recent years. Off Yemen, bomb-laden drones and mines thrown adrift by Yemeni Houthi rebels have damaged ships amid the country’s years-long war. Near the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz, tankers have been seized by Iranian forces. Others have been attacked in incidents the Navy blames on Iran.
The attacks followed about a year after then-President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which saw sanctions lifted on Tehran in exchange for its curtailment. drastic reduction in its uranium enrichment.
Iran is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, as officials openly suggest Tehran could build a nuclear bomb if it wanted to. Iran has maintained its peaceful program, although Western nations and international inspectors say Tehran had a military nuclear program until 2003.