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US naval drones briefly seized by Iran returned without cameras

American official says Iranian sailors tried to cover the drones with tarps, deny they had them, during seizure in Red Sea

In this frame grab from Iranian state television, Iranian navy sailors throw an American sea drone overboard in the Red Sea on September 1, 2022. (Iranian state television via AP)
In this frame grab from Iranian state television, Iranian navy sailors throw an American sea drone overboard in the Red Sea on September 1, 2022. (Iranian state television via AP)

A pair of American naval drones that were briefly seized Friday by Iranian forces in the Red Sea were returned with their cameras missing, a US official said.

The Iranian sailors initially tried to cover the drones with tarps and deny they had them, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss unpublicized details about the seizure.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, it was unclear if the Iranians took the cameras or if they fell off when the drones were removed from the water and later put back in.

The US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet identified the seized drones as Saildrone Explorers. Those drones are commercially available and used by a variety of clients, including scientists, to monitor open waters.

“The unmanned surface vessels were unarmed and taking unclassified photos of the surrounding environment while loitering in an assigned patrol area at least 4 nautical miles from the nearest maritime traffic lane,” the 5th Fleet said.

“The vessels posed no risk to naval traffic and had been operating in the general vicinity of the Southern Red Sea for more than 200 consecutive days without incident.”

The Navy’s guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze and USS Delbert D. Black responded to the seizure at 2 p.m. Thursday and each deployed MH-60 SeaHawk helicopters, the 5th Fleet said. Iran ultimately released the drones at 8 a.m. Friday.

In this photo released by the US Navy, a Saildrone Explorer unmanned sea drone sails in the Gulf of Aqaba on February 9, 2022. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth/US Navy via AP)

In footage that Iranian state television said came from the deck of the Iranian navy’s Jamaran destroyer, lifejacket-wearing sailors could be seen examining the two Saildrone Explorers. They tossed one overboard as another warship could be seen in the distance.

Iran has no coastline along the Red Sea, a crucial international waterway lying between the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa.

State TV said the Iranian navy found “several unmanned spying vessels abandoned in the international maritime routes” on Thursday.

“After two warnings to an American destroyer to prevent possible incidents, Jamaran seized the two vessels,” state TV said. “After securing the international shipping waterway, the Naval Squadron No. 84 released the vessels in a safe area.”

This marks the second such incident in recent days as negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers hang in the balance.

The earlier incident that began Monday night involved Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, not its regular navy, and occurred in the Persian Gulf. The Guard towed a Saildrone Explorer before releasing it as an American warship trailed it. Iran had criticized the US Navy for releasing a “Hollywood” video of the incident, only to do the same Friday in the Red Sea incident.

This photo released by the US Navy shows the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ship Shahid Bazair, left, towing a US Navy Saildrone Explorer in the Persian Gulf on August 30, 2022. (US Navy via AP)

The 5th Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year. Drones used by the Navy include ultra-endurance aerial surveillance drones, surface ships like the SeaHawk and the Sea Hunter and smaller underwater drones that resemble torpedoes.

The 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes. It also stretches as far as the Red Sea reaches near the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt leading to the Mediterranean, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.

The region has seen a series of maritime attacks in recent years.

Off Yemen in the Red Sea, bomb-laden drone boats and mines set adrift by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have damaged vessels amid that country’s yearslong war. Near the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz, oil tankers have been seized by Iranian forces. Others have been attacked in incidents the Navy blames on Iran.

Those attacks came about a year after then-US president Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which sanctions on Tehran were lifted in exchange for it drastically limiting its enrichment of uranium.

Negotiations to revive the accord now hang in the balance. The US cast doubt Friday on Iran’s latest written response over the talks.

Iran now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels as officials openly suggest Tehran could build a nuclear bomb if it wishes to. Iran has maintained its program is peaceful, though Western nations and international inspectors say Tehran had a military nuclear program up until 2003.

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