Iran Denies Losing Drone in Strait of Hormuz

uss boxer
The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) pictured during a vertical replenishment-at-sea in the Andaman Sea, June 8, 2019. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

reuters logo By Parisa Hafezi and Steve Holland DUBAI/WASHINGTON, July 19 (Reuters) – The United States and Iran were at odds on Friday about a U.S. assertion that its Navy had brought down an Iranian drone in the Gulf, with Tehran showing video footage that it said disproved the incident even happened.

A senior Trump administration official said Washington had “very clear evidence” that the U.S. warship Boxer downed an Iranian drone in the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz on Thursday morning local time.

“We’re confident,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity, adding that the United States would take down any other Iranian drones that came too close to its warships. A video of the incident could be released by the Pentagon, the official said.

But Iran said all of its pilotless planes were accounted for amid growing international concern that both sides could blunder into a war in the strategic waterway.

Iran’s state television broadcast a video showing aerial views of ships that it said disproved the U.S. assertion. The television station said a drone had captured the footage, which came from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and timing notations indicated the pilotless aircraft was still filming after Washington said it had been downed.

The episode is the latest friction to test nerves around the Strait of Hormuz, a major chokepoint for oil tankers. Oil prices rose on Friday because of the tension.

Despite tough talk on both sides and an Iranian downing of a U.S. drone in June, Washington and Tehran have so far shown restraint.

TRUMP ANNOUNCEMENT

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday the USS Boxer had destroyed an Iranian drone because it had flown to within 1,000 yards (914 meters) of the ship in a “provocative and hostile action.”

The Pentagon announced the ship had downed an Iranian drone shortly after Trump did. A U.S. official said the drone was brought down by electronic jamming.

A senior Trump administration official, briefing reporters on Friday on condition of anonymity, said, “We have very clear evidence” that the warship brought down an Iranian drone but did not immediately offer proof. “If they fly too close to our ships, they’ll continue to be shot down,” the official said.

Abolfazl Shekarchi, a senior armed forces spokesman, was quoted by the semi-official Tasnim news agency as saying there was no report of any “operational response” by the USS Boxer.

“All drones belonging to Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz … returned safely to their bases after their mission of identification and control,” he said.

Iran is in a series of disputes with the United States over a series of issues including security in the Gulf, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and U.S. sanctions, dismissed the report of a drone downing.

Relations between the United States and Iran have worsened since last year when Trump abandoned a 2015 international nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. Under the pact, Iran agreed to restrict nuclear work, long seen by the West as a cover for developing atomic bombs, in return for lifting sanctions.

FALTERING DIPLOMACY

Tehran on Thursday signaled a willingness to engage in diplomacy with a modest offer on its nuclear work – ratification of a document prescribing more intrusive nuclear inspections if Washington abandoned its economic sanctions.

But the Trump administration official dismissed the offer by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Zarif appeared to have no decision-making ability and that Washington “would not consider anything from him serious,” the official said.

Asked whom the United States would need to hear from in order to have negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program, the official said: “I would say the supreme leader or the president.”

Trump remained open to negotiations with Iran without preconditions on its nuclear program and will maintain a tough economic sanctions regime on Tehran in the meantime, the official said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was concerned about the situation in the Gulf.

“You can’t look at this region without being concerned at the moment,” she said at a news conference. “Every opportunity for diplomatic contact should be attempted to avoid an escalation.”

In the latest development in a standoff between Iran and Britain that has also stoked Gulf tensions, Gibraltar’s supreme court granted a 30-day extension to allow authorities to detain the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 until Aug. 15.

The United States has blamed Iran for a series of attacks since mid-May on shipping around the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil artery. Tehran rejects the allegations.

The United States has reimposed sanctions to throttle Iran’s oil trade and pressure Tehran to renegotiate the accord, discuss its ballistic missiles and modify its regional policies.

The United States is struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai Writing by Alistair Bell)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.