An Iranian passenger plane flying over Syria was forced to alter its course after being approached by a fighter jet, Tehran’s state television said Thursday.
While some Iranian reports said the fighter jet was Israeli, a US official later told The Associated Press that an American fighter jet passed by the Iranian jet, but at a safe distance.
The Mahan Airlines flight en route to Beirut from Tehran had to maneuver after being “harassed” by an Israeli warplane, injuring several passengers, Iran’s official IRIB news agency initially reported.
Later reports in Iran and Syria indicated that the jet may have been approached by two US fighter jets, leading to some confusion.
Syrian state media quoted unnamed civil aviation officials in Damascus as saying two jets, suspected of belonging to the US-led coalition, “intercepted” an Iranian passenger plane over al-Tanf, in southwestern Syria.
US troops fighting Islamic State militants have established a presence in the al-Tanf area since 2016. The US has declared it a so-called de-conflicted zone. Beyond it, Syrian forces and their Iranian allies operate, which makes it a remaining flashpoint in the region.
The reports said the interception forced the pilot to sharply change altitude, flying low and causing slight injuries among some of the passengers.
But according to the Iranian TV report, the Mahan Airline Flight 1152 was in Syrian airspace when two Israeli fighter jets came within a distance of 100 meters (328 feet) of the Iranian plane. The pilot quickly took the aircraft to a lower altitude to avoid a collision with the jets.
US Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesman, later told the AP that a US F-15 fighter jet “conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) from the airliner this evening.”
“The visual inspection occurred to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at al-Tanf garrison,” Urban said. “Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air 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 together can encounter wake turbulence.
Data from the flight recorded by website FlightRadar24.com showed the airliner climbed from 34,000 feet to 34,600 feet in under two minutes around the time of the incident, then dropped back down to 34,000 feet within a minute after.
Iranian state TV had quoted the pilot of the Iranian plane as saying the fighter jets’ pilots had identified themselves as American over radio communication.
The aircraft landed soon after this but three passengers onboard sustained injuries and were taken to hospital, the TV said, citing what it described as informed but unnamed sources at the Beirut airport. The report also said some of the cabin crew were injured but did not elaborate.
Video posted by Iranian media purportedly showed the warplane at a distance, a passenger on the plane bleeding from his forehead, oxygen masks hanging from the ceiling, and another man lying on the floor of the plane.
— Press TV (@PressTV) July 23, 2020
Another video appeared to show the passenger plane shaking and passengers screaming.
— Press TV (@PressTV) July 23, 2020
A Lebanese airport official said the flight landed regularly in Beirut on Thursday evening. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists, had no further details.
The head of the Beirut airport told Reuters that some passengers suffered minor injuries.
Iran’s foreign ministry said that following the incident, a protest note was sent to the Swiss Embassy, which represents America’s interests in Iran, warning that if any accident happens on the plane’s return flight to Tehran, it will be the responsibility of the United States.
The ministry’s spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said Iran is investigating the incident. The same note was also delivered to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres by Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi.
There was no immediate comment from Israel.
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.
Tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran have climbed in recent weeks amid a series of mysterious fires and explosions at sensitive Iranian sites, which some have pinned on Israel, the US, or both.
The most significant incident was a July 2 explosion and fire at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site.
The blast, which US media reports have attributed to Israel, damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant.