U.S. fighter jets fly near Iranian passenger plane, state media says

Amin Hossein Khodadadi and Saphora Smith and Courtney Kube and Ali Arouzi and Rima Abdelkader and Suzanne Ciechalski and Caitlin Fichtel and Sarah Kaufman and Caroline Radnofsky and Omeed Malek
·4 min read

Iranian state media reported that two U.S. fighter jets came close to an Iranian airliner on Thursday, forcing its pilot to swiftly change altitude, a move that left at least two passengers injured.

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, however, said in a statement that a single F-15 fighter jet had conducted a "visual inspection" of the airliner at a “safe distance” before flying off.

A reason for the discrepancy in the number of American aircraft involved was not immediately clear. NBC News could not verify either account.

Image: Close-up of a passenger sitting by window with blood on his face in a screenshot from footage purportedly shot by a reporter for Iranian state TV. (IRIB via The Associated Press)
Image: Close-up of a passenger sitting by window with blood on his face in a screenshot from footage purportedly shot by a reporter for Iranian state TV. (IRIB via The Associated Press)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the U.S. on Friday of "endangering innocent civilian passengers."

“These outlaws must be stopped before disaster,” Zarif tweeted.

Two U.S. Department of Defense officials said the Iranian airline had deviated from the civilian air corridor, and the military decided to check it out. They said the closest point of approach was 5,000 feet, which the U.S. military considers a safe distance for an intercept or visual identification.

The F-15 approached from behind, they said, and its automated collision avoidance system alarm inside the cockpit went off, which means the alarm inside the civilian airliner also could have gone off.

The alarm prompted the pilots to take action, “maybe excessive action,” one defense official said.

There were two F-15s in the air but only one approached, the officials said.

Footage shot by a reporter for the Iranian state broadcasting network IRIB aboard the flight and verified by NBC News' Social Newsgathering team captured commotion inside the aircraft. It shows one man with a bloodied face and another lying motionless on the aircraft floor. At least one passenger was pictured wearing her inflated yellow life jacket seemingly preparing herself for a crash landing.

The pilot of the passenger jet, which the semi-official news agency Farsnews said was flying from Tehran to Beirut, told state television IRINN that the pilots of the two fighter jets that approached his aircraft had identified themselves as American.

Earlier, Iranian state media reported that the fighter jets were Israeli. A spokesman for the Israeli military said it was not commenting on any foreign reports on the incident.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees American troops in the region, said the F-15 aircraft was conducting a visual inspection of the Iranian plane at approximately 1,000 meters (around 1,094 yards) when it passed near the Tanf garrison in Syria where coalition forces are present.

“Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft,” Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement. “The professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards.”

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Footage purportedly filmed inside the Iranian passenger jet appears to show a fighter jet near the aircraft, according to Iranian state broadcasting network IRIB. In a separate clip screams and shouts can be heard from inside the cabin. NBC News has not been able to independently verify the footage.

The incident could further ratchet up tensions between the two countries, which have worsened since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

On Jan. 3, the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general, in a drone strike that later prompted Tehran to launch ballistic missiles targeting American forces in Iraq.

Last year, U.S. Marines jammed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, bringing the aircraft down and destroying it.

The incident Thursday recalls the July 3, 1988, downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the U.S. Navy. The Iranian government often points to that event as one of the many incidents that has caused the decades-long rift between Washington and Tehran.

Image: Iranian airline Mahan Air (Iliya Pitalev / Sputnik via AP file)
Image: Iranian airline Mahan Air (Iliya Pitalev / Sputnik via AP file)

Following the encounter Thursday, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Hesamodin Ashna, tweeted what appeared to be a veiled threat against the U.S.

“One who minds the lives of its leaders does not play with the lives of our passengers,” he said.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the incident was under investigation.

It added that a protest note was sent to the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, warning that if any accident happens on the plane’s return flight to Tehran it would be the responsibility of the United States.

The plane landed in Beirut before returning to Tehran, where it touched down around 3 a.m. local time on Friday (6.30 p.m. Thursday ET), according to Iranian state media.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.