Iranian surveillance drone targets a US carrier
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.