US officials say the incident ended peacefully after several hours as the Iranians unhooked the tow line to the drone.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has seized an American sea drone in the Gulf and tried to tow it away, only releasing the unmanned vessel when a US Navy warship and helicopter approached, US officials have said.
The incident on Tuesday marks the first time the Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet’s new drone task force has been targeted by Iran.
While the interception ended without incident, it comes amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran as negotiations over the tattered Iranian nuclear deal hang in the balance.
The U.S. Navy prevented a support ship from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) from capturing an unmanned surface vessel operated by the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf, Aug. 29-30.
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The IRGC’s Shahid Baziar warship attached a line to the Saildrone Explorer in the central part of the Gulf in international waters late Monday night, said Commander Timothy Hawkins, a 5th Fleet spokesman.
The vessel then began towing the Saildrone Explorer, which carries cameras, radars and sensors for remotely monitoring the sea, Hawkins said.
The USS Thunderbolt, a Navy coastal patrol boat, as well as an MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, moved to shadow the IRGC ship. The Navy called the Shahid Baziar by radio to identify the drone as American, Hawkins said.
“Our response was one that as such made clear that this was US government property and was operating in international waters and that we had every intention to take action if necessary,” the commander told The Associated Press news agency.
Hawkins said the incident ended peacefully after some four hours as the Iranians unhooked the tow line to the drone and left the area as the American forces were nearby.
US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who leads the military’s Central Command, praised the Thunderbolt’s crew for its response.
“This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal and unprofessional activity in the Middle East,” he said in a statement
The IRGC did not acknowledge the incident. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment.
The 5th Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year. The 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf through which 20 percent of all oil passes.
It also stretches as far as the Red Sea reaches near the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt linking the Middle East to the Mediterranean, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.