US Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie on Tuesday said US forces may have downed more than one Iranian drone over the Persian Gulf last week, amid spiraling tensions between Washington and Tehran.
McKenzie told a CBS reporter on board the USS Boxer that he believes his troops “successfully” brought down two drones in the Strait of Hormuz, rather than the single UAV announced by Washington last week.
“As always it was a complex tactical picture, we believe two drones,” he said. “We believe two drones were successfully — there may have been more that we are not aware of — those are the two that we engaged successfully,” the CENTCOM chief said.
“We are confident we brought down one drone, we may have brought down a second,” McKenzie added.
Iran denies its aircraft was destroyed in a US strike.
“We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own UAS by mistake!” tweeted Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi on Friday.
The incident came less than one month after Tehran downed an American drone in the same waterway and US President Donald Trump came close to retaliating with a military strike.
The clashes in one of the busiest waterways for international oil traffic highlighted the risk of war between two countries at odds over a wide range of issues. After Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and imposed additional economic sanctions, the Iranians pushed back on the military front, allegedly sabotaging Saudi and other oil tankers in the Gulf, shooting down a US drone on June 20, and stepping up support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Trump last week announced that the USS Boxer had destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after it came dangerously close to the American warship. He said the amphibious assault ship took defensive action after the Iranian aircraft closed to within 1,000 yards of the ship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.
Iran’s armed forces dismissed Trump’s assertion as “baseless and delusional” while admitting one of their drones was flying near the US ship.
In an exchange with reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump insisted “there’s a lot of proof” that the Navy destroyed an Iranian drone last week over the Strait of Hormuz, although the US actually has provided no public evidence.
Trump said Iran has “disrespected” the US, and called it a “very mixed up country” with big economic problems and a restive population.
The US president also appeared to confirm news reports that the USS Boxer used an electronic jamming device to bring down the drone, rather than shoot it down with a missile or another conventional weapon.
“The drone came down, you know how it came down, with a new technology that’s actually quite amazing,” Trump said. The US military last week refused to say what kind of weapon it used against the drone.
Washington has accused Tehran of threatening US forces and interests in Iraq and in the Gulf, and recent months accelerated the deployment of the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and its strike group to the Arabian Sea and deployed four B-52 long-range bombers to the Gulf state of Qatar. It has since deployed additional Patriot air defense missile batteries in the Gulf region.
Shortly after Iran shot down a US Navy drone aircraft on June 20, Trump ordered a retaliatory military strike but called it off at the last moment, saying the risk of casualties was disproportionate to the downing by Iran, which did not cost any US lives.
Iran claimed the US drone violated its airspace; the Pentagon denied this.
Tensions surged again on Friday when Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. On Monday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt accused Iran of “an act of state piracy” that he said must be met with a coordinated international reaction.
Trump on Monday denied Iran’s claim that it dismantled a CIA spy ring and arrested 17 suspects with alleged links to the US intelligence agency.
“The report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth,” Trump tweeted.