Iranian officials on Friday slammed the interception of an Iranian passenger plane by a US fighter jet in the skies over Syria as “illegal,” threatening action against Washington over the incident.
Iran had said that one of its airliners, flying from Tehran to Beirut on Thursday, was “harassed” by fighter jets, but later landed safely in Lebanon.
Some initial reports said the warplanes were Israeli, but a US official confirmed a US jet had passed by the Iranian airliner, but at a safe distance.
“US illegally occupies territory of another State and then harasses a scheduled civil airliner — endangering innocent civilian passengers — ostensibly to protect its occupation forces,” Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
“Audacity to compound lawlessness upon lawlessness,” he said. “These outlaws must be stopped before disaster.”
Iran’s Transportation Minister Mohammad Eslami described the incident as a “terrorist act” and said Tehran would complain to the International Civil Aviation Organization. “We expect this to lead to condemnation of the terrorist act by the US government,” Eslami said.
The ICAO said Friday it had not yet received a complaint from Iran.
The US military said of Thursday’s incident that an “F-15 on a routine air mission… conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters (yards).”
US Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement after Iranian state television aired amateur footage of passengers on board screaming as the Mahan Air jetliner appeared to change course suddenly.
— Press TV (@PressTV) July 23, 2020
Another video apparently shot on a phone appeared to show at least two fighter jets flying beside the plane.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency said the Mahan Air pilot made contact on the radio with two US fighter planes, and that the aircraft later landed safely in the Lebanese capital.
CENTCOM, which covers the whole of the wider Middle East, insisted it was a “professional intercept… conducted in accordance with international standards.”
US Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesman, told The Associated Press that a US F-15 fighter jet “conducted a standard visual inspection” of the Iranian plane “at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) from the airliner.”
He said the inspection was meant to ensure the safety of US coalition troops in al-Tanf in Syria as the plane was flying over that area. He said once the aircraft was identified as a passenger plane, “the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft.”
Aircraft at that altitude are to maintain a distance of at least 600 meters (2,000 feet) to ensure they don’t hit each other, though planes traveling that close can encounter wake turbulence.
— Press TV (@PressTV) July 23, 2020
Iranian television called the incident “provocative and dangerous.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said that Iran had been in touch with both the United Nations and the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has handled US interests in Iran since relations were severed in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979.
“If anything happens to the aircraft on its return flight, Iran will hold the United States responsible,” Mousavi told IRNA.
The incident came amid heightened tensions on Israel’s northern border and days after an alleged Israeli airstrike near Damascus. The Lebanese Hezbollah terror group said one of its fighters was killed in the strike, and Israel on Thursday sent a small group of military reinforcements to its border with Lebanon.
Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It has targeted government troops, allied Iranian forces and fighters from Hezbollah. Threatening a passenger jet during the daytime would be a highly irregular incident, however.
Iranian society still bears deep scars from the US accidentally downing an Iran Air passenger flight in 1988, killing all 290 people aboard.
Mahan has been linked to alleged shipments of arms from Iran to Shiite groups in Syria, including the Hezbollah terror group. Alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria have been thought to target Mahan Air weapons shipments in the past.
The US has blacklisted Mahan Air, accused the airline of transporting weapons and terrorists for the Iranian regime, and in May sanctioned a Chinese firm for doing business with the carrier.
The airline has been under US sanctions since 2011 for allegedly providing support to the Quds Force, the overseas branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that backs Hezbollah and other terror groups.