Iran, Saying Aircraft Trespassed, Confirms Drone Shooting Episode

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TEHRAN -- Iran's defense minister on Friday confirmed that Iranian warplanes had fired shots at an American drone last week but said they had taken the action after the unmanned aircraft had entered Iranian airspace.

The assertions by the defense minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, were the first acknowledgment from Iran that the episode had happened. He spoke less than 24 hours after the Pentagon first disclosed the shooting, involving two Iranian jet fighters and the American aircraft, a Predator surveillance drone, during what American officials described as a routine surveillance mission on Nov. 1 in international airspace over the Persian Gulf.

It was the first time that Iranian aircraft had been known to fire at an American drone, one of the many ways that the United States has sought to monitor developments in Iran over more than three decades of estrangement between the two countries. The United States said it had protested the shooting via the United States interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, and had warned the Iranians that the drone flights would continue.The American officials said the Predator had been flying 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast. General Vahidi did not specify where the episode took place, but his assertion that it was in Iranian airspace presented a possible new complication to diplomatic efforts by both countries to engage in direct talks following President Obama's re-election.

General Vahidi's version of events also differed with the Pentagon version in another way: He said the two Iranian planes, which the Pentagon had identified as Russian-made Su-25 jets known as Frogfoots, belonged to the Iranian Air Force. The Americans had said the two planes were under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose activities are routinely more aggressive than the conventional Air Force.

General Vahidi, whose account was reported by the Iranian Labor News Agency and other media outlets, said that last week an unidentified plane had entered Iranian airspace over its waters in the Persian Gulf. He said the intruder had been "forced to escape," after action by Iran's air force.

It is unclear why Iranian officials had kept the episode a secret. It also is unclear, from the Iranian account, whether the warplanes had sought to down the drone and missed, or had fired warning shots to chase it away.

A lawmaker, Mohammad Saleh Jokar, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran's parliament, also said the American aircraft had trespassed.

"Early last week, a U.S. drone which had violated Iran's airspace received a decisive response by the armed forces that were stationed in the region," he said in a Friday interview with the Young Journalist Club, an Iranian semiofficial news agency.

Mr. Jokar said the drone had been on a spying mission. "The U.S. drone entered our country's airspace with an aim to gather information because there is no other justification," he said.

The Predator's sensor technology is so sophisticated that it could have monitored activities in Iran from the distance cited by the Pentagon officials in their account.

The Iranian firing on the aircraft had been completely legal, Mr. Jokar said. "Any violation against Iran's airspace, territorial waters and land will receive a strong response by the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said.

Earlier on Friday, Iranian state television ran "breaking news" banners during regular programming saying that the country will confront any foreign aircraft violating its airspace. But there was no specific reference to the Predator drone.

"Iran pledges 'firm response to any air, ground and sea aggression' " and "Iran says will confront any foreign aircraft violating its airspace," one news item on a ticker read. A presenter for state television's English language channel Press TV said that Iran was making this statement "in the face of threats of military action, from Israel mainly."

Two commanders also gave interviews on Friday stressing Iran's right to defend itself. "Defenders of the Islamic Republic of Iran will give a decisive response to any air, land and naval attacks," the deputy commander of Iran's armed forces, Massoud Jazayeri, told the Fars News Agency, which is headed by a former officer of the Revolutionary Guards.

"If any foreign flying objects enter our country's airspace, the armed forces will confront them," he said.

Another officer, the commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Air Defense Base, told the state Islamic Republic News Agency his forces are capable of countering "all threats."

A possible confrontation in the heavily militarized Persian Gulf could present new obstacles in efforts to make progress on resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, the most intractable issue in Iran's difficult relations with the West. But in what appeared to be a sign of possible progress, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Friday that it was resuming negotiations with Iran regarding inspector access to sensitive Iranian sites, aimed at resolving questions about whether Iran had engaged in nuclear weapons development work.

The agency, the nuclear monitoring arm of the United Nations, said in an announcement that it was sending negotiators to Tehran on Dec. 13, the first such meeting since August. An agency spokeswoman, Gill Tudor, said in an e-mail to news agencies that the purpose of the talks was "to conclude the structured approach to resolving outstanding issues" related to Iran's nuclear program.

Inspectors from the agency have been insisting on the right to an unrestricted visit to Parchin, an Iranian military site near Tehran where, the inspectors suspect, research work in nuclear weapons triggers may have been carried out.

Iran has repeatedly denied its nuclear work is aimed at producing a weapon but has rejected the agency's requests to visit Parchin or other sites that the Iranians deem classified. Commercial satellite imagery earlier this year suggested the Iranians were seeking to clean up the Parchin site, which further raised suspicions among the nuclear agency officials.

Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran, and Rick Gladstone from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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