Washington: The Pentagon on Sunday accused Iran of attempting to shoot down a U.S. Reaper drone on Thursday as the unmanned surveillance aircraft was flying over one of two crippled tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
U.S. military officials for the first time also linked Iran to a separate missile attack in Yemen on June 6 that hit another Reaper drone and forced it to crash.
The U.S. blamed Tehran-backed Houthi rebels fighting in the country’s civil war, citing unspecified “Iranian assistance” in the missile launch.
The Pentagon released no video or other evidence of Iran’s involvement, and did not explain why it waited so many days before announcing the attacks, which caused no injuries.
But the decision to publicly blame Iran for them increased chances that President Donald Trump will boost U.S. forces in the Middle East or take other steps to intensify what the White House calls a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said a U.S. intelligence assessment had concluded that “a modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile attempted to shoot down a U.S. MQ-9 (drone) over the Gulf of Oman to disrupt surveillance” of the crippled tanker.
The Russian-designed, shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missile missed by about a kilometer, or more than half a mile, Brown said.
Tensions flared last week after the Trump administration publicly blamed Iran for what it said were coordinated attacks on a pair of fuel tankers, owned by companies in Japan and Norway, in international waters.
Both ships suffered still-unexplained explosions shortly after dawn Wednesday and caught fire, forcing the crews to evacuate. Iran denied any role.
In the second incident, Brown said a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper was shot down over Yemen a week earlier “by what we assess to be a Houthi SA-6 surface-to-air missile.”
Iranian forces fired a modified SA-7 surface-to-air missile at a U.S. Reaper at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, minutes after the drone had arrived in the vicinity of the two crippled tankers, according to Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
“Subsequent analysis indicates that this was a likely attempt to shoot down or otherwise disrupt the (drone) surveillance” of the stricken tankers, Urban said. He blamed the launch on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary organization.
“The SA-7 was ineffective and its closest point of approach to the MQ-9 was approximately 1 kilometer,” Brown said.
The command released no video or other evidence to back up the claim that an attempted missile attack had occurred.
The attack a week earlier hit a Reaper flying over Yemen and caused it to crash, officials said.
Video released by Houthi rebels and posted on YouTube purportedly showed wreckage of aircraft on the ground in Yemen, including shots of a propeller such as those on a Reaper drone.
U.S. officials said Sunday that the Reaper appeared to have been hit by an SA-6 missile, a Russian-designed anti-aircraft system, typically fired from a mobile launcher.
The missile strike occurred at too high an altitude for Houthi rebels with the anti-aircraft missiles known to be in their possession, indicating that they had received assistance from Iran, U.S. officials said.
“The altitude of the engagement indicated an improvement over previous Houthi capability, which we asses was enabled by Iranian assistance,” Urban said.
Pompeo says there is more evidence that Iran attacked tankers
As U.S. allies pressed the Trump administration for more concrete evidence linking Iran to attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that additional proof will be forthcoming.
Japan and Germany have requested stronger evidence than the grainy video released by the Pentagon appearing to show an Iranian patrol boat removing from one of the ships an item said to be an unexploded mine.
Pompeo said in appearances on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday” that he had spent much of the weekend talking with his counterparts in foreign capitals. It was an implicit acknowledgment that he has work to do convincing the world the U.S. accusations against Iran, which has denied responsibility for the suspicious explosions last week, are indeed, as Pompeo put it, “indisputable” and “unmistakable.”
“There is no doubt,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it, but the American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world over the past 40 days.”
Last week’s tanker attacks have laid bare a credibility problem burdening the Trump administration as it faces skepticism, especially from wary U.S. allies urging “maximum restraint” to avoid a spiraling confrontation between the United States and Iran.
Pompeo bristled at the suggestion that the U.S. conclusion was under question, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s request for more information because the video was “not enough.”
“The German foreign minister has seen a great deal more than just that video,” Pompeo said on CBS. “He will continue to see more.”
Pompeo said some countries “just wish this would go away.” But he called it a fundamental right of every country to travel through the international waters of the Strait of Hormuz, which he said Iran is attempting to deny.
“I am confident that as we continue to develop the fact pattern, countries around the world will not only accept the basic facts, which I think are indisputable, but will come to understand that this is an important mission for the world,” he said.