Iran’s navy seized two US naval drones in international waters in the Red Sea on Thursday.
The drones were eventually released, but a US defense official says the incident appears to be an escalation of Iranian hostile actions against the United States.
Earlier this week, a similar incident took place in the Persian Gulf. “The fact that this happened two days after their failed attempt in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf appears to be an escalation,” the official said.
The incident began Thursday, the official said, when the Iranian naval vessel was observed to pull two US drones out of the water “in an attempt to steal them,” the official said. The US then quickly moved in with two nearby destroyers, the USS Nitze and USS Delbert D. Black, as well as two helicopters and communicated by radio to demand the return of the drones.
The Iranians agreed but asked for security reasons to wait until daylight on Friday, which the US agreed to, the official said.
The unmanned seagoing vessels, known as Saildrone Explorers, were operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea, 4 miles from the nearest maritime traffic lane, according to the US Central Command. The unarmed drones had been operating in the area for more than 200 days without incident, the Central Command said, taking unclassified photos of the area.
Iranian state television broadcast video showing the drones being pushed back into the water from the deck of the Iranian warship.
According to Iranian state television, the Iranian navy seized the drones while conducting a counter-terrorism mission in the Red Sea. “The destroyer Jamaran seized two ships on Thursday to avert a potential accident … the two ships were released after international shipping lanes were secured and a warning was issued to the US fleet,” state television said.
The incidents come at a sensitive time with negotiations on a revived nuclear deal seem to falter. On Thursday, the US State Department said Tehran’s latest response to a European Union proposal to revive the deal was “unconstructive”.
The US official noted that unprofessional interactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s navy are rare. When other unprofessional incidents have occurred, they have usually been naval vessels belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), not the regular Iranian navy.
IRGC ships and small boats have had multiple unprofessional interactions with the US Navy in recent years.
Earlier this week, the US Navy prevented an Iranian ship from capturing a US maritime drone in the Persian Gulf in what a senior US commander called a “flagrant” and “unwarranted” incident.
As US forces in the region passed through international waters Monday, they spotted an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps support vessel, Shahid Baziar, towing a US-operated maritime drone, also known as an unmanned surface vessel Saildrone Explorer.
A US Navy patrol ship, the USS Thunderbolt, was “operating nearby and responding immediately,” the Navy said. After the Iranians attached a line to the maritime drone, US forces in the area communicated directly with the Iranians to say they wanted the drone back, and the Iranians eventually disconnected the tow line.
The US is increasingly using commercially available drones that it leases to conduct maritime surveillance. The official said there is currently no concern that Iran has been given access to classified technology as it is commercial technology.