WASHINGTON — Iranian warplanes shot at a U.S. military surveillance drone flying over the Persian Gulf near Iran last week, Pentagon officials disclosed Thursday. They said that the aircraft, a Predator drone, was flying in international airspace and was not hit and that the episode had prompted a strong protest to the Iranian government.
The shooting, which involved two Russian-made Su-25 jets knowns as Frogfoots, occurred Nov. 1 and was the first known instance of Iranian warplanes firing on a U.S. surveillance drone. George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department’s weeklong silence about the episode was the result of restrictions on the discussion of classified surveillance missions. He answered questions about it during a Pentagon news conference Thursday only after it had been reported by news organizations earlier in the day.
Even so, the failure to disclose a hostile encounter with Iran’s military at a time of increased international tensions over the disputed Iranian nuclear program — and five days before the U.S. presidential election — raises questions for the Obama administration. Had the Iranian attack been disclosed before Election Day, it is likely to have been viewed in a political context — interpreted either as sign of the administration’s weakness or, conversely, as an opportunity for President Barack Obama to demonstrate leadership.
Late last year, an RQ-170 surveillance drone operated by the CIA rather than the military crashed deep inside Iranian territory while on a mission that is believed to have been intended to map suspected nuclear sites. That episode came to light only after Iran bragged that it had electronically attacked the drone and guided it to a landing inside its borders. U.S. officials said the drone had crashed after a technical malfunction.
A senior administration official sought to contain any ripple effects from the episode last week, noting that it should not be viewed as a precursor to a broader military confrontation with Iran or that it could derail potential diplomatic contacts between the two countries over the nuclear program.
“We view the incident as problematic,” a senior official said, “but we’re wary of the possibility of unintended escalation.”
Little said that Iranian warplanes “fired multiple rounds” but missed the remotely guided Predator, which has a unique silhouette similar to a giant, upside-down flying spoon and is not easily confused with a piloted jet fighter.
“Our aircraft was never in Iranian airspace,” Little said. “It was always flying in international airspace.”
Little said that the protest was delivered to Iran through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which acts on behalf of U.S. interests in Iran, and that the Defense Department would not halt surveillance missions.