U.S. Shoots Down Iranian Drone After Iran Says It Seized Small Tanker In Persian Gulf

Jul 18, 2019
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President Trump says the U.S. has shot down an Iranian drone that was threatening an American ship. It happened in the Strait of Hormuz, and Trump says the drone was within a thousand yards of the U.S. warship at the time. The incident could make a tense situation in the Gulf even more so, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Trump says the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, was moving into the Strait of Hormuz when the Iranian drone flew close by. In comments as he met with the Dutch prime minister in the White House, Trump said the drone ignored multiple calls to stand down and was threatening the safety of the ship and its crew. Trump says the drone was immediately destroyed.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.

NORTHAM: The incident came hours after Iran announced it had seized a small foreign tanker. Iran's Revolutionary Guard issued a statement saying it had impounded the tanker which is owned by a company based in the United Arab Emirates for smuggling oil from Iran.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: I don't think anybody's happy about the place we're in right now because no one quite knows what the next step is, and there are a lot of ways in which this could get worse before it gets better.

NORTHAM: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says incidents have been increasing as the U.S. mounts what it calls a maximum-pressure campaign to force Iran to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear agreement. O'Hanlon notes that Iran recently shot down a U.S. drone, and the White House has accused Iran of attacking several other oil tankers over the past few weeks.

O'HANLON: Every day you don't have an attack, you sort of hope that that's the new normal. But I think everybody knows better than to count on that. And at what point will Iran decide that it's got to escalate because it doesn't see any other option?

NORTHAM: Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, downplayed the incident. He told reporters the tanker it seized was small, carrying 1 million liters, not 1 million barrels. He said that Iran nabs oil smugglers every other day.

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MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Because of the heavy subsidies that we provide for our own fuel products, there is a lot of smuggling out of Iran. A lot of it goes to - through the Persian Gulf. A lot of it goes through our borders.

NORTHAM: The concern is that incidents like this could create a perilous miscalculation. The U.S. has sent troops to the region and has been promising for weeks to roll out an international coalition to ensure freedom of navigation, says chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford.

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JOSEPH DUNFORD: I think probably over the next couple weeks, we'll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative, and then we'll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that will...

NORTHAM: But Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, says many allies don't like that the Trump administration pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and that it'll be a challenge to convince allies to get on board with a maritime coalition.

HENRY ROME: I think anybody who's looking at this seriously will see that the Iranians have been creating problems in the Persian Gulf, especially over the past couple months. But the skepticism from U.S. allies in particular has been because the administration has lost a lot of credibility in making claims like this.

NORTHAM: Rome says it's likely Iran will continue to flex its muscles in the Gulf as long as it's deprived of the economic aid that was promised under the nuclear agreement.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.