Iranian surveillance drone targets a US carrier

Friday 05/02/2016
A file picture shows the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

Dubai - Iranian television has been showcasing close-up and over­head images of a US Navy air­craft carrier in the Gulf taken by a remotely piloted vehicle (RPA) operated by the Islamic Re­public of Iran Navy.

Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the Iranian naval chief, described the operation as an effort to acquire “accurate footage of the combat units of foreign forces” in the region and praised the “bravery, experi­ence and the scientific capabilities of our drone operators” for getting so close to the US warship.

Although Iranian media did not name the US vessel and the US Navy Fifth Fleet did not comment direct­ly on the report, the USS Harry S. Truman, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is deployed to the Gulf in support of operations against the Is­lamic State (ISIS) and is believed to have been the subject of the Iranian surveillance. Media reports in Iran added that a light submarine also participated in the operation.

US Navy Commander Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet, suggested the incident took place on January 12th — the same day Iran detained ten US sail­ors whose boats had entered Irani­an territorial waters. The US carrier was not conducting flights at the time so operations were unaffected but admitted that takeoffs and land­ings would otherwise have been disrupted.

The US Navy said it decided against firing on the drone once the RPA was deemed to be no im­mediate threat. Stephens, however, called the activity “abnormal and unprofessional” adding that US na­val forces stand ready to “respond appropriately as the situation dic­tates and will exercise our right to defend our forces against any threat”.

Iranian reports suggested the in­cident took place on January 29th, towards the end of week-long naval drills conducted by Iran in an area that included parts of the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.

Iranian forces said they success­fully fired Noor anti-ship cruise missiles against mock targets dur­ing the drills. The Noor is the same weapon believed to have been used by Hezbollah in 2006 to hit the Is­raeli corvette INS Hanit.

The latest incident follows Janu­ary’s release of video footage by the US Navy showing small craft, pur­portedly Iranian, firing unguided rockets in close proximity to US and French military vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz, in an incident that was described as “highly pro­vocative” by the Americans.

Since then, the United States has imposed unilateral sanctions against the Iranian ballistic missile programme just as the Joint Com­prehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lifted much wider nuclear-related international sanctions against Iran. In October 2015, Iran had conduct­ed a test launch of the liquid-fuel Emad intermediate-range ballistic missile in apparent violation of a UN resolution.

Despite seemingly improving dip­lomatic relations with the United States, the security establishment in Iran perceives its primary mili­tary threat coming from the Ameri­cans. Although some elements of the Iranian political leadership may be more open to détente with the United States, the Iranian security establishment mistrusts US inten­tions.

Although such any confrontation is unlikely under the Obama admin­istration, with an agreement on the nuclear programme in place, Teh­ran worries that the United States plans to target its ballistic missile programme either as a ploy to dis­arm the country or as a way to jeop­ardise the JCPOA — and again iso­late Iran.

Iran regularly tests the tolerance of US Navy in the Gulf, which can be hazardous if either side miscalcu­lates the motives of low-level skir­mishes Tehran tends to initiate. The latest incident, however, was more intrusive than usual because it in­volved overt intelligence-gathering from the air and the United States would not have immediately known the sort of mission the RPA was sup­porting.

Iran is making clear to the Ameri­cans that its underlying strategic calculus essentially remains un­changed. Iran will want to ensure that the swift release of US sailors detained days before international sanctions against Iran were lifted, is interpreted as a one-off gesture rather than a policy change.

Iran may also want to use these sorts of measured provocations as part of a response to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States against its ballistic missile programme.

This incident seems to have been intended more for the domestic au­dience in Iran than the American leadership. The security establish­ment in Iran wants to preserve its own interests, which are served, in part, by rivalry with the United States — and in part by a showcasing of high-tech capabilities that glorify a well-resourced security establish­ment.