Tehran and Washington warned each other yesterday after officials on both sides confirmed Iranian warplanes shot at a US military surveillance drone flying over the Persian Gulf near Iran last week.
Deputy chief of Iran's armed forces, Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, said it would deal decisively with any foreign encroachment while Pentagon officials said the US sent Iran a warning via diplomatic channels, saying it would defend its military assets and would keep sending aircraft on such surveillance operations.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said on Tuesday the Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot fighters fired at the drone on November 1 but did not hit it. "They intercepted the aircraft and fired multiple rounds," Little said.
Confirming the attack, Iran's defence minister Ahmad Vahidi said: "Last week an anonymous plane entered the space over the territorial waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf area which, due to the timely, clever and decisive action of our armed forces, was forced to flee."
It was unclear whether the Iranians intended to warn off the unmanned drone but Little said: "Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down."
The drone was "never in Iranian airspace" and came under fire off the Iranian coast over international waters, Little said.
The Pentagon said that the aircraft, a Predator drone, was flying in international airspace and was not hit and that the episode had prompted a strong protest to the Iranian government.
Little said the aircraft followed the drone for at least several kilometres as it moved farther away from Iranian airspace. "We believe that they fired at least twice and made at least two passes," he said.
International airspace begins after 12 nautical miles and Little said the drone at no point entered Iranian airspace.
Late last year, an RQ-170 surveillance drone operated by the CIA crashed deep in Iranian territory while on a mission believed to have been intended to map suspected nuclear sites. That episode came to light only after Iran bragged that it had electronically attacked the drone and guided it to a landing inside its borders. US officials said the drone had crashed after a malfunction.
A senior administration official sought to contain any ripple effects from the episode last week, noting that it should not be viewed as a precursor to a broader military confrontation with Iran or that it could derail potential diplomatic contacts over the nuclear programme.
"We view the incident as problematic," a senior official said, "but we're wary of the possibility of unintended escalation."
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was notified of the incident, as were members of Congress and the White House, Little said.
"There is absolutely no pre-cedent for this," he said. "This is the first time a [drone] has been fired upon to our knowledge by Iranian aircraft."
Many questions about the incident remain, including why Iranian warplanes could not manage - if they wanted - to shoot down a relatively easy target.
President Barack Obama has resisted calls from inside the US and Israel for military action against Iran, focusing instead on crushing rounds of sanctions.
The US and Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence, have hinted at the possibility of military strikes on Iran as a last resort.
In Vienna, the UN nuclear agency said it would hold fresh talks with Iran on its atomic programme on December 13.
Reuters, Associated Press, The New York Times