WASHINGTON -- A U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone Thursday in the Strait of Hormuz after it threatened the ship, President Donald Trump said. The incident marked a new escalation of tensions between the countries less than one month after Iran downed an American drone in the same waterway and Trump came close to retaliating with a military strike.
In remarks at the White House, Trump blamed Iran for a "provocative and hostile" action and said the U.S. responded in self-defense. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told reporters as he arrived for a meeting at the United Nations that "we have no information about losing a drone today."
The clash in one of the busiest waterways for international oil traffic highlighted the risk of war between two countries at odds over a wide range of issues. After Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and imposed additional economic sanctions, the Iranians have pushed back on the military front and are accused of sabotaging Saudi and other oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, shooting down a U.S. drone on June 20 and stepping up support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Adding to the economic pressure on Tehran, the Treasury Department said Thursday that it was imposing sanctions on what it called a network of front companies and agents involved in helping Iran buy sensitive materials for its nuclear program. It said the targeted individuals and entities are based in Iran, China and Belgium.
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Trump said the Navy's USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, took defensive action after the Iranian aircraft closed to within 1,000 yards of the ship and ignored calls to stand down.
"The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran's attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce," Trump said.
The Pentagon said the incident happened at 10 a.m. Persian Gulf time Thursday in international waters while the Boxer was transiting the waterway to enter the Persian Gulf. The Boxer is among several U.S. Navy ships in the area, including the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier that has been operating in the nearby North Arabian Sea for weeks.
"A fixed-wing unmanned aerial system approached Boxer and closed within a threatening range," chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a written statement. "The ship took defensive action against the UAS to ensure the safety of the ship and its crew."
Neither Trump nor the Pentagon spelled out how the Boxer destroyed the drone. CNN reported that the ship used electronic jamming to take it down rather than hitting it with a missile.
The Iranians and Americans have had close encounters in the Strait of Hormuz in the past, and it's not unprecedented for Iran to fly a drone near a U.S. warship.
In December, about 30 Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels trailed the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and its strike group through the strait as Associated Press journalists on board watched. One small vessel launched what appeared to be a commercial-grade drone to film the U.S. ships.
Other transits have seen the Iranians fire rockets away from American warships or test-fire their machine guns. The Revolutionary Guard's small fast boats often cut in front of the large carriers, coming dangerously close to running into them in "swarm attacks." The Revolutionary Guard boats are often armed with bomb-carrying drones and sea-to-sea and surface-to-sea missiles.
Thursday's incident was the latest in a series of events that raised U.S.-Iran tensions since early May when Washington accused Tehran of threatening U.S. forces and interests in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. In response, the U.S. accelerated the deployment of the Lincoln and its strike group to the Arabian Sea and deployed four B-52 long-range bombers to Qatar. It has since deployed additional Patriot air defense missile batteries in the Persian Gulf region.
Shortly after Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone aircraft on June 20, Trump ordered a retaliatory military strike but called it off at the last moment, saying the risk of casualties was disproportionate to the downing by Iran, which did not cost any U.S. lives.
Iran claimed the U.S. drone violated its airspace. The Pentagon denied that.
Zarif said Thursday that Iran and the U.S. were only "a few minutes away from a war" after Iran downed the American drone. He spoke to U.S. media outlets on the sidelines of a visit to the United Nations.
At the meeting, Zarif also said Iran would be willing to move up an Iranian parliament ratification of an agreement Tehran made with the International Atomic Energy Association -- one that outlined access to Iranian nuclear sites and other information.
A spokesman for Zarif explained that Iran is already abiding by the agreement under the 2015 nuclear deal, but it doesn't have the force of law because it's not supposed to be ratified by the Iranian parliament until 2023. Zarif told reporters that the ratification could come earlier if the U.S. eased sanctions.
A senior administration official responded that Trump has repeatedly said he is willing to have a conversation with Iranian leaders. The official said if Iran wants to make a "serious gesture," it should immediately stop enriching uranium and negotiate an agreement that includes a permanent end to Iran's nuclear ambitions, including development of nuclear-capable missiles. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Zarif blamed Washington for the escalation of tensions.
"We live in a very dangerous environment," he said. "The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of an abyss." Zarif accused the Trump administration of "trying to starve our people" and "deplete our treasury" through economic sanctions.
SEIZED TANKER ADMISSION
Earlier Thursday, Iran said its Revolutionary Guard seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country, and hours later released video showing the vessel to be the Riah, a United Arab Emirates-based ship that had vanished in Iranian waters over the weekend.
The announcement cleared up the fate of the missing ship but raised a host of other questions and heightened worries about the free flow of traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most critical petroleum shipping routes. One-fifth of global crude exports pass through the strait.
Iranian state television did not at first identify the seized vessel but said it was intercepted Sunday and was involved in smuggling some 264,000 gallons of Iranian fuel. Iran did not identify the nationalities of the crew.
Iran said the tanker was seized south of its Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz. Neighboring Qeshm Island has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.
The Panamanian-flagged tanker stopped transmitting its location early Sunday near Qeshm Island, according to data on the tracking site Maritime Traffic. However, it often did so over the past two years when nearing Iranian waters, other tracking data show.
Zarif said the seized vessel was at best a "small tanker" and that Iranian forces are cracking down on fuel smuggling daily.
Reacting to the disclosure, the State Department condemned what it called the Revolutionary Guard's "continued harassment of vessels and interference with safe passage in and around the Strait of Hormuz" and demanded the immediate release of the ship and crew.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Iranian forces over the weekend had gone to the aid of a ship in distress and towed it to shore for repairs. The ministry did not identify the ship, which raised the possibility it might not be the missing UAE tanker.
But there had been widespread speculation that the Riah was taken by Iran. The country has long been at odds with the the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both U.S. allies that support opposing sides in the civil war in Yemen.
Zarif said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday that his country is capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz, but doesn't want to.
"We certainly have the ability to do it, but we certainly don't want to do it because the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are our lifeline," Zarif said. "It has to be secured. We play a big role in securing it, but it has to be secure for everybody."
"It's dangerous because it is very crowded," Zarif said, adding that the last time the area was this crowded, the U.S. shot down an Iranian commercial airliner with 290 passengers in 1988. "We feel the danger, and that is why we want to avoid a dangerous escalation, but we cannot give up defending our country."
Information for this article was contributed by Darlene Superville, Robert Burns, Ian Phillips, Aya Batrawy, Deb Riechmann, Jennifer Peltz, Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell of The Associated Press; by Jennifer Jacobs, Josh Wingrove and Justin Sink of Bloomberg News; and by Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times.
An undated photo from Iranian state television’s English-language service, Press TV, shows Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels circling a Panamanian-flagged oil tanker that was intercepted Sunday in Iranian waters in the Strait of Hormuz, reportedly for smuggling oil.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (smiling), attends a meeting Thursday with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres at U.N. headquarters and blamed the U.S. for escalating tensions. He said the countries were only “a few minutes away from a war” after Iran shot down a U.S. drone on June 20.
A Section on 07/19/2019