A US Navy ship shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after its operators ignored warnings to stand down, US President Donald Trump said on Thursday, the first military action that Washington has taken against Tehran after a series of incidents in the Gulf where it has vowed to “aggressively” ensure the free passage of vessels.
The drone came within 1,000 metres of the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, and the US took defensive action, Mr Trump said.
“The drone was immediately destroyed,” he said from the White House. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.
“The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests.”
The clash in one of the busiest waterways for international oil traffic highlighted the risk of conflict between two countries at odds over a wide range of issues. After Mr 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, allegedly sabotaging Saudi and other oil tankers in the Gulf, shooting down a US drone on June 20 and stepping up support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Mr Trump ordered a military strike in retaliation to the downing of the drone but called it off, saying that the casualty count would have been a disproportionate reaction.
Adding to the economic pressure on Tehran, the Treasury Department said Thursday 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.
But the downing of the drone marked a new escalation between Washington and Tehran. Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman confirmed the strike against the drone on Thursday.
“At approximately 10am local time, the amphibious ship USS Boxer was in international waters conducting a planned inbound transit of the Strait of Hormuz,” Mr Hoffman said.
“A fixed-wing unmanned aerial system approached Boxer and closed within a threatening range. The ship took defensive action to ensure the safety of the ship and its crew.”
After the drone was allegedly shot down, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted the word “reminder”, with a map showing how far the US is from Iran and Gulf waters.
He later told reporters at the United Nations: “We have no information about losing a drone today.”
Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi denied on Friday having lost any drone recently and hinted that the US could have downed their own “by mistake.”
Iranian leaders have earlier called on the US to withdraw from the area.
In an apparent response to the Iranian attacks in the Gulf, Britain seized a fully loaded Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar on July 4, allegedly headed for Syria in violation of sanctions.
Iran furiously branded the seizure “piracy, and one week later armed Iranian boats menaced a British tanker in the Gulf, before they were driven off by a Royal Navy frigate.
Earlier on Thursday, the United States demanded Iran immediately release a vessel it seized in the Gulf.
Iran played down the seizure of the ship, which it said was a small vessel that was smuggling oil.
Iranian state TV aired footage of a vessel called “RIAH.” The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah disappeared off trackers in Iranian territorial waters days ago.