A pair of Iranian military aircraft targeted a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle on Nov. 1 as it conducted reconnaissance over the high seas, an act of aggression not seen before from Tehran, the Defense Department said in a Thursday announcement reported by Reuters.
Iran's action, which the Obama administration judged to be a deliberate attempt to damage the plane, could have prompted a U.S. backlash and subsequent escalating moves had it been successful, according to the news agency.
Interpreting the development as suggestive of the potential for wider armed conflict would be inappropriate, and the Iranian move is not expected to disrupt possible bilateral communication aimed at defusing an intensifying standoff over the nation's atomic activities, the New York Times on Thursday quoted a high-level Obama insider as saying. The United States, Israel and European powers fear Iran's ostensibly peaceful atomic efforts are intended to establish a nuclear-weapon capability.
"We view the incident as problematic,” one high-level government staffer said, “but we’re wary of the possibility of unintended escalation.”
The Pentagon said two of Iran's Sukhoi Su-25 fighter planes approached the Predator drone above the Persian Gulf, roughly 18.4 miles from the Iranian shoreline, according to Reuters. The U.S. aircraft was engaged in a standard monitoring operation of a confidential nature, the department stated.
The Iranian fighters shot at the Predator a number of times and then pursued it for some miles as it flew away from Iran's territorial boundary, according to spokesman George Little. "We believe that they fired at least twice and made at least two passes," he said.
Little said the U.S. aircraft never crossed over Iranian waters, which begin 13.8 miles from the nation's coastline. Tehran, though, disputed the Pentagon assertion, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.
"Last week an unidentified aircraft entered the airspace over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, which was forced to flee due to the prompt, smart and decisive action of the Islamic Republic of Iran's armed forces," Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi stated on Friday.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer Masoud Jazayeri earlier said his nation's defense forces would "give decisive response to any aerial, ground or sea aggression."
"If any kind of alien flying object wants to enter our country's airspace, our armed forces will confront it," Jazayeri added.
The Pentagon spokesman said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the White House and U.S. lawmakers promptly received details on the event. In an official communication to Tehran, Washington said it would protect U.S. armed forces holdings and continue to dispatch aerial equipment for similar monitoring operations.
"The United States has communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters over the Arabian Gulf consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region," Agence France-Presse quoted Little as saying.
"We have a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military, to protect our military assets and our forces in the region and will do so when necessary," the spokesman said.
Legislators from both political parties received notification of the incident on Nov. 2, a high-ranking Obama staffer said in comments reported by the Wall Street Journal.
One insider said the administration provided no information on the development to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who lost to President Obama in Tuesday's vote.
"I think there was a reason that it didn't come out until Nov. 8," former Romney counselor Rich Williamson told the Journal on Thursday. "I think that's because the people on the other side thought it would have political ramifications. It would raise issues they didn't want to address."
Meanwhile, Iranian state media said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called on Thursday for bilateral discussions between Tehran and Washington.
"We have declared that the official representatives from other states can inspect Iran's nuclear sites as Iran is the only country in the world which has opened the door of its nuclear sites to the world media," Ahmadinejad added in remarks published by the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Nuclear-armed countries close to Iran do not face the danger of military strikes, he added in comments reported by the Journal. Israel is assumed to be the Middle East's sole nuclear power.
"The United States unconditionally supports some of them in the region, so clearly it isn't about nuclear bombs while they know for themselves that the Iranian people and nation hasn't begun an atomic bomb nor do they need to build one," Ahmadinejad said. "Why does the Iranian nation need an atomic bomb?"
"I think the United States, instead of increasing pressure, must seek to increase cooperation, and they would benefit from such a policy," he said. "I think we all need to have dialogue, but it shouldn't be only about the nuclear issue, it should cover a wide range of issues."
Punitive economic measures against Iran would not achieve their aims, Ahmadinejad added. Such moves by Washington and other governments, along with the U.N. Security Council, have significantly harmed the value of Iran's monetary unit, as well as the nation's ability to engage in commerce and tap global financial networks.
"Sanctioning the Iranian central bank is a kind of economic massacre, but I'm sure they're making a big mistake," the Iranian president stated. "It hasn't impacted our education system or health coverage. Of course in the future they might deny us (access to) some medicine, maybe they won't sell medicine to us in the future."
Elsewhere, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday said it would join Iran on Dec. 13 for further discussions over a potential arrangement to address the organization's questions over possible arms-relevant activities in the Middle Eastern state, Reuters reported.. No such plan has emerged from a series of gatherings held previously this year by Iranian personnel and IAEA officials.
"The aim is to conclude the structured approach to resolving outstanding issues related to Iran's nuclear program," said Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman for the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
International relations insiders said IAEA safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts is expected to lead his agency's delegation to the upcoming gathering.
An unsuccessful outcome from another round of talks would end the Vienna, Austria-based organization's hope to achieve progress through such dialogue, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in an earlier report by the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper. Another failed meeting would send a deeply negative signal, Interfax quoted him as saying.
In Washington, the Obama administration on Thursday took punitive action against Iranian human and organizational targets for purportedly aiding the spread of materials relevant to unconventional armaments, the Treasury Department announced.
A U.S. bill now under development would impose broad measures targeting Iran's ability to receive materials from abroad as well as its holdings in other nations, the Associated Press reported on Friday, quoting legislative staffers and other insiders.
The proposal, which Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) hope to link to armed forces legislation, is designed to place strain on Iran's capacity to receive farming, manufacturing and other products useful in sustaining fundamental economic operations in the country, according to sources in Congress and elsewhere. Government personnel said the proposal would not extend to medical goods, edible items and certain technologies considered useful to activists.
Language favored by Kirk would prevent the Obama administration from excluding countries from the measures, while Menendez and additional Senate personnel are examining how to allow for such exceptions. An Iran penalties law enacted late last year has allowed the administration to exempt countries deemed to have achieved major reductions to their purchases of petroleum from Iran, AP reported.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reaffirmed that an Iranian uranium enrichment move "essentially delayed their arrival at the red line [for military action] by eight months," AP reported separately on Friday.
Russia's stance on Iran's atomic efforts aligns significantly with Israel's position, AFP quoted Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres as saying on Friday.
"Without going into details, I also found the Russians have a much more determined stance on Iran," Peres said to Israeli army radio.
Tehran has suggested its Bushehr atomic energy facility might take in excess of two months longer than previously announced to begin running at full capacity, Reuters reported on Thursday.