Iran says maybe US accidentally downed its own drone as Gulf crisis simmers

Borzou Daragahi

Tehran has denied a US claim that an American warship in the Gulf shot down an Iranian aerial drone, suggesting that perhaps US forces brought down one of their own aircraft instead.

US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the USS Boxer shot down what he described as an Iranian drone near the Strait of Hormuz after repeated warnings that it was approaching too close to the US Navy amphibious assault ship.

But Iranian officials Friday derided the claim that the US had brought down one of its drones as “delusional,” and insisted that all of its “reconnaissance” drones had safely returned to base.

"Contrary to the delusional claim made by the president of the American regime, all UAVs belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz, including the one mentioned by the US president, have safely returned to their bases,” Brig-Gen Abolfazl Shekarchi was quoted as saying by state media. “There have been no reports of any confrontation with the USS Boxer.”

Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s quick-witted deputy foreign minister, quipped on Twitter: “We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own [UAV] by mistake!”

The incident and ensuing confusion is the latest flare-up between Iran and the United States in a period of marked escalation following Washington’s move last year to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and begin punishing international companies for doing business with Tehran.

Iran has responded by challenging the US and its allies. It downed an expensive US drone near or in its territory last month and is allegedly behind a number of attempts to sabotage or harass oil tankers moving in and out of the Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz that connects it to the seas.

“These attacks serve Iran’s purpose by offering Tehran the benefit of ambiguity, and they have not resulted in any loss of life to date — thereby increasing the potential to further threaten Gulf shipping without necessarily provoking a major U.S. military response,” the Soufan Center, a consultancy, wrote in a note on Friday.

Details of the latest confrontation remain murky. The US has yet to release surveillance video or other footage showing its targeting of the drone. Iran may be denying its drone was shot to down to avoid having to respond and further escalate, but has said it will soon release footage showing the “ridiculousness of the operation the Americans claim".

Mr Trump, reading from what was apparently a carefully worded prepared statement, said on Thursday that the Iranian drone “ignored multiple calls to stand down,” describing the incident as “the latest of many provocative and hostile actions against vessels operating in international waters.”

But Brig Gen Shekarji described the US accusations, which were echoed by the Pentagon as well as the White House, as “aimed at provocation and destabilisation of the Persian Gulf region and the strategic Strait of Hormuz.”

The incident and the ones preceding it have spooked the shipping industry. An industry source told The Independent that insurance costs for shippers moving in and out of the Persian Gulf had tripled and quadrupled over the last few weeks as tensions between Iran and the US have spiked, an increase in expenses which will likely be passed on to consumers across the world.

"Until the situation is stabilised the increased threat levels may result in delays, an increase in shipping costs, and included in that is higher insurance premiums, and potential higher energy prices," said the source. "All of that will be absorbed by consumers."

At a briefing on Friday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov placed blame on Washington and its campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran for the rising tensions and occasional flare-ups.

“The concentration of forces and equipment in the area of the Persian Gulf, belonging to different countries, is so high that any incidents are possible,” he said, according to the Tass news agency.

“We regret that the US side, despite all calls … still persistently continues its policy of increasing tension and putting maximum pressure on Tehran. This policy is erroneous and is fraught with further complications and upheavals.”