The United States has revealed that Iranian aircraft fired on, but did not hit, an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone that was flying in international airspace over the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials said the incident occurred November 1, nearly one week before the American elections. It was not disclosed until November 8, after reports of it began to leak out.
It is believed to be the first time an American drone has been fired on in international airspace over the gulf.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said two Russian-made SU-25 "Frogfoot" fighters intercepted the drone and fired multiple rounds at it.
He said the drone was not hit and returned unharmed to its base at an undisclosed location.
Little said the Predator drone was performing “routine surveillance” some 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast when it was intercepted by the Iranian fighters.
He said the robotic drone, which can be flown by human controllers on the ground thousands of kilometers away, never entered Iranian airspace. International airspace begins after 12 nautical miles.
The spokesman declined to comment about whether the incident amounted to an “act of war” by Iran.
But he said U.S. officials have a “working assumption” that the Iranian jets were not just firing warning shots but fired with the goal of shooting down the drone.
The spokesman said Washington has communicated to Iran that it will continue to conduct drone surveillance flights in international airspace. He added that the United States has a “range of options” to protect its forces in the Middle East.
No Iranian response to the U.S. announcement was immediately available.
Amid tensions over the Iranian nuclear program, in the past year the United States has boosted its military presence in the Persian Gulf region, deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups and other assets to help protect the Strait of Hormuz, the gulf waterway on Iran's southern coast which is used to transport some one-third of the world's seaborne oil exports.
The incident occurred less than one year after a U.S. drone equipped with stealth technology went down in eastern Iran and was captured by Iranian forces.
The latest incident was also revealed the same day the United States announced a new series of sanctions against Iran.
The new measures target four Iranian officials and five government bodies accused by Washington of involvement in censorship activities, including blocking Iranians' access to the Internet.
They were the latest measures in a series of sanctions by the U.S. and its allies targeting the Islamic republic over its nuclear program, human rights abuses, and alleged support for terrorism.
With reporting from Reuters, AP and AFP