Top Iranian general: We could have downed a US plane with crew of 35, but didn’t

Top Iranian general: We could have downed a US plane with crew of 35, but didn’t

Head of IRGC aerospace force says army deliberately avoided targeting jet that accompanied drone, claims 2 warnings were given before UAV was destroyed

Illustrative: Head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh looks at debris from what the division describes as the US drone which was shot down by Iran, seen here in Tehran, Iran, June 21, 2019. (Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via AP)
Illustrative: Head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh looks at debris from what the division describes as the US drone which was shot down by Iran, seen here in Tehran, Iran, June 21, 2019. (Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via AP)

A top commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Friday Iran could have downed an aircraft carrying American personnel on Thursday when it destroyed a large US drone over the Persian Gulf, but chose not to do so.

“We could have targeted a P-8 American plane” accompanying the drone Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s aerospace force, said, as he unveiled parts of the drone which were recovered by the Iranian navy. “But we did not do this.”

He claimed the plane carried 35 people and had also infiltrated Iranian airspace.

The P-8 is a US maritime surveillance plane with and anti-shipping and anti submarine warfare capabilities.

Hajizadeh also said Iran’s forces gave two warnings before downing the reconnaissance drone.

“Twice we… sent warnings,” he said, without specifying the means. “Unfortunately, when they failed to reply… and the aircraft made no change to its trajectory… we were obliged to shoot it down.”

The US said Friday Iran has no right to respond to diplomacy “with military force.”

“Our diplomacy does not give Iran the right to respond with military force,” Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, told reporters in Saudi Arabia.

“Iran needs to meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not military force.”

File: A Boeing P-8 Poseidon flies on display during Farnborough International Air Show, Farnborough, England, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

The downing of the drone — which Washington insists was over international waters but Tehran says was within its airspace — has seen tensions between the two countries spike further after a series of attacks on tankers the US and its staunch ally, Saudi Arabia, have blamed on Iran.

Tehran denies having been behind those attacks but has frequently threatened in the past to block the vital sea lanes into and out of the Gulf.

“Iran is responsible for escalating tensions in the region. They continue to reject diplomatic overtures to deescalate tensions,” Hook said.

Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, speaks during a press conference in al-Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh on June 21, 2019 (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

The US diplomat was in Saudi Arabia, where he met deputy defense minister Prince Khaled bin Salman on Friday.

The two discussed efforts to counter Iranian actions, Salman said on Twitter.

“We affirmed the kingdom’s support for the United States’ maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which came as a result of continuing Iranian hostility and terrorism, and discussed latest Iranian attacks on the kingdom,” he said.

US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly said he does not want war, offered mixed messages over the drone, warning that Iran “made a very big mistake” — but also suggesting a “loose and stupid” Iranian general accidentally shot it down.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have grown sharply since May last year when Trump unilaterally abandoned a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran, and reimposed sweeping sanctions. The international agreement intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from earlier sanctions.

The US has since bolstered its military presence in the Middle East and blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation.

In this June 18, 2019 photo, US President Donald Trump speaks during a re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump has said he remains open to negotiations with Iran, but its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week categorically ruled out talks with Trump after his abandonment of the nuclear deal.

Iran “has no trust in America and will not in any way repeat the bitter experience of the previous negotiations with America,” Khamenei said.

Reuters reported that Trump on Thursday night urged Iran to come to the table to hold talks in a message conveyed through Oman, and warned that a US strike against the Islamic Republic in response to the drone incident could be imminent.

That report came after American officials said the US made preparations for a military strike against Iran, but the operation was abruptly called off with just hours to go.

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the targets would have included radars and missile batteries.

The New York Times reported that Trump had approved the strikes Thursday night, but then called them off. The newspaper cited anonymous senior administration officials.

The White House has declined requests for comment.

According to an official who spoke to The Associated Press, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.

The military operation was called off around 7:30 p.m., Washington time, after Trump had spent most of Thursday discussing Iran strategy with top national security advisers and congressional leaders.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel said Friday European countries were still hoping that there can be a political solution to the tensions between the United States and Iran.

Merkel told reporters in Brussels that European governments’ foreign policy advisers had met on the sidelines of a European Council meeting to discuss the tensions in the region.

She said “naturally we are worried about the situation and we’re counting on diplomatic negotiations for a political solution to a very tense situation.”

Earlier, her spokesman said Germany welcomed reports Trump had apparently decided against immediate military strikes.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk on the tarmac of the al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 13, 2018. (Airman 1st Class D. Blake Browning/US Air Force via AP)

Also on Thursday night, Israeli security sources told Channel 13 they were concerned a lack of a decisive US response would embolden Iran to become more aggressive.

Trump’s initial comments on the attack were succinct. He declared in a tweet that “Iran made a very big mistake!” But he also suggested that shooting down the drone — which has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737 — was a foolish error rather than an intentional escalation, suggesting he may have been looking for some way to avoid a crisis.

“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said at the White House. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”

Trump, who has said he wants to avoid war and negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, cast the shoot-down as “a new wrinkle… a new fly in the ointment.” Yet he also said that “this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”

He said the American drone was unarmed and unmanned and “clearly over international waters.” It would have “made a big, big difference” if someone had been inside, he said.

Iran said Friday it had “indisputable” evidence the US drone had violated its airspace. Iran said it had called in the Swiss ambassador, whose country has represented US interests since the severance of diplomatic relations in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, to issue a formal protest.

The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure on Iran for more than a year. It reinstated punishing sanctions following Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the nuclear deal.

The other world powers who remain signed on to the nuclear deal have set a meeting to discuss the US withdrawal and Iran’s announced plans to increase its uranium stockpile for June 28, a date far enough in the future to perhaps allow tensions to cool.

Citing Iranian threats, the US recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the US and Iran into an open conflict 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.

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