The US confirmed Thursday that an American drone was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile in international airspace, contradicting Iran’s claim that the unmanned aircraft was flying over its territory.
In a statement, US Central Command said the incident was “an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.” The incident comes amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over the collapsing nuclear deal.
The statement identified the drone as an RQ-4 Global Hawk, which provides real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The drones cost over $100 million apiece and can fly higher than 10 miles in altitude and stay in the air for over 24 hours at a time. They have a distinguishable hump-shaped front and an engine atop. Their wingspan is bigger than that of a Boeing 737 passenger jet.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said in a statement that the drone had turned off its identification transponder, state broadcaster IRIB reported, according to the Reuters news agency.
“The drone took off from a US base in the southern Persian Gulf … It had turned off all its identifying equipment in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy,” read the statement, according to IRIB.
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it shot down the drone Thursday morning when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran’s Hormozgan province.
Kouhmobarak is some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) southeast of Tehran and is close to the Strait of Hormuz.
The Guard said it shot down the drone at 4:05 a.m. after it collected data from Iranian territory, including the southern port of Chahbahar near Iran’s border with Pakistan. Iran used its air defense system known as Third of Khordad to shoot down the drone — a truck-based missile system that can fire up to 18 miles (30 kilometers) into the sky, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.
The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said that the shooting down of a US drone had sent “a clear message” to America.
In comments carried live on Thursday on Iranian state television, Gen. Hossein Salami also said that Iran does “not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a warning to the US against violating Iranian airspace.
A ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by the semiofficial Tasnim news agency as saying that Iran cannot condone the “illegal trespassing and invading of the country’s skies by any kind of foreign flying object.”
Mousavi expressed Iran’s “strong objection” and added that the “invaders will bear full responsibility.”
The downing of the RQ-4 Global Hawk comes after the US military alleged Iran had fired a missile last week at a drone that was responding to an attack on two oil tankers near the Gulf of Oman. The US blames Iran for the attack on the ships, an allegation Tehran rejects.
The attacks come against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the US and Iran following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers a year ago.
Iran recently has quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and threatened to boost its enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels, trying to pressure Europe for new terms to the 2015 deal.
In recent weeks, the US has sped an aircraft carrier to the Mideast and deployed additional troops to the tens of thousands already in the region. Mysterious attacks also have targeted oil tankers as Iranian-allied Houthi rebels launched bomb-laden drones into Saudi Arabia. Israel and the US are said to blame Iran for the tanker attacks.
All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the US and Iran into an open conflict, some 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.