Fears of wider Mideast war as Washington, Tehran face off

TEHRAN: Iran shot down a US spy drone yesterday near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, with the two sides at odds whether it was in Iranian or international airspace, in the latest incident stoking tensions between the arch-foes. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the “US-made Global Hawk surveillance drone” was hit with a missile “after violating Iranian air space” over the waters of Hormozgan province.


The Pentagon confirmed a US surveillance drone was shot down by Iranian forces, but it insisted the unmanned aircraft was in international airspace. The incident comes at a time of growing antagonism between Iran and the United States following two waves of still unexplained attacks on Gulf shipping, which Washington has blamed on Tehran.
The incident fanned fears of wider military conflict in the Middle East as US President Donald Trump pursues a campaign of to isolate Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and role in regional wars. It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since mid-May including explosive strikes on six oil tankers as Tehran and Washington have slid towards confrontation.

Drone debris

The debris field from a US military drone that was shot down by Iran is in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz, and US naval assets have been dispatched to the area, a US official told Reuters, contradicting Iran’s account of the shoot-down. The US military did not immediately comment about the location of the debris from the Navy MQ-4C Triton drone.


But if the location of the debris field is confirmed, it would appear to provide physical evidence casting doubt on Iran’s account that it shot down the drone over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.


Iran has denied involvement in any of the attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices. They surged by more than $3 to above $63 a barrel yesterday. Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main Gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behavior” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps. “When you interfere with international shipping it has an impact on the supply of energy, it has an impact on the price of oil which has an impact on the world economy. It essentially affects almost every person on the globe,” Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in London.


Tensions flared with Trump’s withdrawal last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and have worsened as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Tehran’s vital oil trade and Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.


Upping the ante, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after the May tanker attacks. Iranian state media said the “spy” drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.


A US official said the drone was a US Navy MQ-4C Triton and that it had been downed in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf. Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US military’s Central Command, said Iran’s account that the drone had been flying over Iranian territory was false.


“This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international air space,” Urban said. The drone, he added, was downed over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 2335 GMT – in the early morning hours of local time in the Gulf.


Iran has denied any involvement and hinted the US might have orchestrated them itself to provide a pretext for the use of force against the Islamic republic. Russian President Vladimir Putin said any use of force by the United States against Iran “would be a disaster for the region”. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said the downing of the drone was “a clear message” his country will defend its borders. Iran will “respond to all foreign aggression and our reaction is, and will be, categorical and absolute”, General Hossein Salami said, quoted by Tasnim news agency.


“We declare that we are not looking for war but we are ready to respond to any declaration of war,” he added. The Pentagon said later in a statement that an Iranian surface-to-air missile had brought down a US Gold Hawk high-altitude drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
“Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” it said. “This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.”


Tensions have been running high between Iran and the United States ever since President Donald Trump abandoned a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement in May last year. The subsequent reimposition of crippling unilateral sanctions has dealt a heavy blow to Iran’s already flagging economy. – Agencies