Iran has shot down a US drone, raising fears that a major military confrontation could erupt between Tehran and Washington in the Gulf.
While Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said the unmanned aircraft was brought down by a surface-to-air missile on Thursday after flying into Iranian airspace, US officials said the drone was in the international territory at the time.
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The different accounts could not be reconciled immediately.
“The US-made Global Hawk surveillance drone was brought down” in the country’s southern coastal province of Hormozgan, the IRGC’s website said. “It was shot down when it entered Iran’s airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in the south.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the alleged intrusion into its airspace, warning of the consequences of such “provocative” measures.
“Any such violation of Iran’s borders are strongly condemned … We warn of the consequences of such illegal and provocative measures,” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
Thursday’s incident marks the first direct Iranian-claimed attack on US assets amid the escalating crisis after the United States imposed punishing sanctions on Tehran earlier this year and increased military forces in the Gulf.
The US military denied any of its unmanned aerial vehicles entered Iranian airspace.
“Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US military’s Central Command.
“This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace.”
Two US officials said it was a MQ-4C Triton US Navy drone that was brought down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.
Concerns are sky high a miscalculation could push the US and Iran into open conflict.
The commander of IRGC said the shooting down of the drone sent “a clear message” to the US.
General Hossein Salami also said Iran does “not have any intention for war with any country, but we are ready for war”, in a speech carried live on Iranian state television.
“Borders are our red line,” Salami told a crowd in the western city of Sanandaj. “Any enemy that violates the borders will be annihilated.”
On Wednesday, a senior Iranian security official had said Iran would “strongly respond” to any violation of its territory.
“Our airspace is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our airspace,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council as saying.
Thursday’s shootdown comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US after President Donald Trump last year pulled out of historic 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers and reimposed sanctions on the country.
The US military has sent additional troops with aircraft carriers and B-52 bombers to the Middle East. However, Trump said he does not seek war with Iran.
Fears of conflict have risen after two oil tankers came under attack a week ago near the Strait of Hormuz – a major oil shipping route where one-fifth of the world’s oil passes from the Middle East to world markets.
The US and its regional allies – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have accused Iran of being behind the series of attacks in the Gulf.
Tehran has denied its involvement and instead suggested Washington could be responsible, using it to justify force against Iran.
On Wednesday, the US Navy said recovered fragments from one of two tanker ships bore a “striking resemblance” to mines seen during Iranian military parades.
Iran has repeatedly denied any responsibility in the June explosions, as well as similar blasts on May 12 off the coast of the UAE that targeted four oil-carrying vessels.
Meanwhile, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook headed to the Middle East for meetings in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain to discuss “Iran’s regional aggression”, the State Department said.
“He will also share additional US intelligence on the range of active threats Iran currently poses to the region,” it said in a statement.
In protest at Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions strategy, Iran announced in May it would start enriching uranium at a higher level unless European signatories to the nuclear deal protected its oil and banking sectors within 60 days.
The US has vowed that Iran can never possess nuclear weapons.