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Drone Shootdown Adds To Tensions Between U.S. And Iran

Jun 20, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 10:45 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There has been a new development in the standoff between the United States and Iran. Overnight, Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. military drone in the Persian Gulf. A U.S. official confirms to NPR that the drone was taken down, although that official disputes the details surrounding the attack. This comes just days after the Trump administration blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

We have NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman with us now and also Peter Kenyon, who's following the story from Istanbul and has covered Iran for many years. Thanks to both of you for being here.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: Tom, I'm going to start with you. Iran says the drone was in Iranian airspace and called crossing that a red line. The U.S. disputes that, says it was in international airspace. Is there any way to know?

BOWMAN: Well, I did speak with a U.S. official this morning who said it was definitely in international airspace. And I'm sure there is a way to know. It could come from the drone itself, a ground station operating the drone or - as well as satellite. So clearly, the coordinates - the exact coordinates of this drone could be determined somehow. I'm - but exactly how, I'm not sure.

MARTIN: And this matters because it determines whether or not Iran was acting defensively. That's what they'll argue if it were to have been found to be in Iranian airspace.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Peter, what's Iran saying?

KENYON: Well, Iran's foreign ministry is sticking with its story, basically, saying Tehran cannot condone what a spokesman calls the invading of the country's skies, adding it's the invaders who will bear responsibility. So they're clearly sticking with their assertion that the Iranian military acted in defense after a violation of its airspace, although up until now, Tehran has not provided any evidence to back that up.

MARTIN: Tom, this was a military asset. Can you describe exactly what we're talking about here? What kind of drone was this?

BOWMAN: Well, it was a drone operated by the Navy. It's called an MQ-4C Triton. And I think when a lot of people think of a drone, they think of something kind of small. But this is 46 feet long, Rachel. It has 130-foot wingspan.

MARTIN: Right. It looks like an airplane.

BOWMAN: It's basically an airplane without a pilot - is what it is. And the official I spoke with today said it was hit by an Iranian missile. It was a hybrid kind of a drone missile that took this Triton down.

MARTIN: And it's significant that it was unmanned. I mean, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it very clear that if any American were to be targeted by Iran, that there would be a military response. So this has not happened. We should be clear. This was an unmanned drone.

BOWMAN: Exactly, which is why they have drones - so you don't risk any pilot going to sensitive areas. But, as you mentioned, Pompeo - he said just earlier this week when he was down at Central Command in Tampa that they're sending more assets over to the region - a thousand more troops, as well as more drones, a fighter squadron. And, Rachel, he said, quote, "we have the capability to respond if Iran makes a bad decision," if it goes after an American or an American interest.

MARTIN: So...

BOWMAN: So we'll see what happens out of this. But one official I spoke with this morning said this could get bigger...

MARTIN: Right.

BOWMAN: ...Adding, we haven't shot at anything.

MARTIN: No, but if the U.S. determines that this was just a bad decision on the part of Iran...

BOWMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Then it could justify a military response.

Peter, is there precedent for this? Has Iran shot down U.S. drones before?

KENYON: Well, there have certainly been crashes of drones before. And several years ago, there was this incident where Iran was making a very big deal out of showing off a drone it claimed to have captured. The U.S. at the time said that had malfunctioned and was lost. I wouldn't really call that a precedent for what we're seeing today. I mean, at the moment, things are quite a bit more tense.

BOWMAN: If I could quickly add...

MARTIN: Yeah, please, Tom.

BOWMAN: ...Rachel, the U.S. says that Iran fired at a U.S. drone just last week, above one of the tankers that was attacked. And they say it was fired from the Iranian mainland, but it was about one kilometer off target.

MARTIN: We heard Admiral Bill McRaven recently on the program talk about how planning for a military invasion of Iran is just not in the cards, that this would be something that the Pentagon would resist. Tom, are you hearing that?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. The Pentagon has been quite concerned about this, about the escalation of this, sending more troops over, more aircraft. And I know, in particular, that Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford has been arguing at the White House that he's trying to tamp things down, tamp down the tensions.

And, you know, particularly with the more hawkish folks over at the White House - national security adviser John Bolton, and we just mentioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - the concern is they're itching for a fight with Iran. Of course, they pulled out of the nuclear agreement and also declared the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. There's a great concern that this, again, could just escalate out of control.

MARTIN: Peter, you've watched Iran for a long time in reporting on that country. What do you think is their next move here?

KENYON: Well, at the moment, I think there's still a strong will to be defiant in the face of this U.S. pressure. But whichever side you believe on these details - act of aggression in international waters or defense - the end result is greater risk of even more tension and a shrinking space for the allies and others who might want to diffuse the situation.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon, who covers Iran, based in Istanbul, and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.