Trump says the Navy shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz

In a photo from the U.S. Marine Corps, a helicopter takes off from the flight deck of the Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, in the Strait of Hormuz, July 18, 2019. President Donald Trump said Thursday that the American military shot down an Iranian drone that threatened the Boxer. It was unclear if the Iranian drone was armed. Lance Cpl. Dalton Swanbeck/U.S. Marine Corps via The New York Times

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A U.S. naval ship destroyed an Iranian drone that flew too close and ignored multiple calls to stand down on Thursday, President Donald Trump said.

The Iranian drone came within 1,000 yards of the USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz before the crew “took defensive action” and “immediately destroyed” it,” Trump said in remarks ahead of a White House ceremony with a delegation from the Netherlands.

“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters,” he said. “The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, our facilities and interests and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce. I also call on other nations to protect their ships as they go through the strait and to work with us in the future.”

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman confirmed the action, which he said was taken “to ensure the safety of the ship and its crew.”

U.S. defense officials declined on to describe the incident aside from releasing a one-paragraph statement.The shootdown follows a pattern of harassing behavior by Iranian forces in the Gulf region that predates the Trump administration. U.S. military officials have sought to respond carefully in an effort to not further inflame the situation.It was not clear whether the unmanned aircraft was armed, or how the Navy shot it down.The Boxer is part of amphibious force that includes more than 2,000 Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which arrived in the region this week as the Pentagon seeks to prevent commercial ships from being seized or harassed by Iranian forces.

The military action against the Iranian drone is the latest such incident in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. Recent confrontations involving ships and tankers in the region have sent tensions soaring between the United States and Iran, which have been at odds over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of harsh new sanctions.

Trump’s unusual disclosure of the drone shootdown also follows accusations that some White House officials have sought to antagonize Iranian officials as the Pentagon attempts to ease tensions and keep the peace. In May, national security adviser John Bolton released an unusual statement stating that the United States was sending a bomber task force and a naval strike group led by an aircraft carrier to the region, rather than having the Defense Department handle the announcement.The shootdown also follows Trump calling for the Pentagon to draw up plans for a military strike on Iran in June after an American surveillance drone was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz. Trump changed his mind about it abruptly June 20 after realizing that it could result in up to 150 Iranian troops being killed, he later tweeted.

Navy vessels have a history of dealing with harassing actions by foreign aircraft, including some in Iran. In 2015, Tehran released video that showed footage of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman recorded from an Iranian drone that flew over the top of the vessel. U.S. military officials said then that a Navy helicopter confirmed the drone was harmless before it flew over, but called the action “abnormal and unprofessional.”

Adding to the latest tensions, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Thursday that it was responsible for the seizure of a tanker that went missing over the weekend in the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway that controls access to the Persian Gulf and the oil that flows through it.

The tanker, based in the United Arab Emirates, and its 12-member crew were detained after they were found to be smuggling Iranian fuel, according to a statement by the Revolutionary Guard. The statement appeared to contradict an earlier claim by Iran’s Foreign Ministry that the ship was rescued by Iranian authorities after a breakdown.

Although Iran said the seizure was prompted by suspicions that the tanker was involved in smuggling Iranian fuel, shipping experts and diplomats noted that Iran has been engaged in a major effort to conceal the origins of Iranian oil shipments to circumvent the sanctions, which are aimed at shutting down Iran’s oil exports altogether.

A video posted on the website of Iran’s English-language Press TV showed Iranian boats circling and then closing in on a small tanker clearly marked with the name Riah - the same name as the UAE-based tanker that went missing. UAE officials have denied any association with the Panama-flagged tanker, its owners or its crew, although shipping records suggest it is owned by a UAE-based company and has spent the past few years operating solely out of Emirati ports.

According to the Revolutionary Guard’s statement, the tanker took delivery of 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of smuggled Iranian fuel from several smaller Iranian dhows, or fishing boats, near Iran’s Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which a significant percentage of the world’s traded oil is transported from the Persian Gulf. The tanker was taken “by surprise” on Sunday as it headed away from Iranian waters to deliver the fuel to foreign clients “far from Iran,” the statement said.

Suspicions that Iran had seized the tanker were first raised by the U.S. military this week. The tanker made a sharp turn toward Iranian waters on Saturday, then switched off its transponders, disappearing from the map, the U.S. military said.

But that claim was countered by a sharp denial from Iran’s Foreign Ministry, which said Iranian authorities went to the rescue of the tanker after it emitted a distress signal, then towed it to shore for repairs.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a briefing for journalists at the United Nations in New York, seemed unsure whether the detained tanker was the same one that his ministry said had been rescued for repairs. But, he said, the seizure of the tanker reported Thursday should be seen in the context of Iran’s anti-smuggling efforts.

“There is a lot of smuggling out of Iran,” he said. “A lot of it goes through the Persian Gulf; a lot of it goes through our borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. So we do things on our borders with them, we do things in the Persian Gulf, and this is one of those.”

The claims and counterclaims surrounding the circumstances of the ship’s detention, its activities and its ownership raised many questions that could not immediately be answered.

The Trump administration’s “maximum-pressure” campaign of heightened sanctions seeks to force Tehran back to the negotiating table after the United States walked away from the nuclear deal last year. The new sanctions on Iran were imposed only by the United States, and Iranian oil exports to other countries are not illegal. However, shipping companies, insurers and traders involved in any aspect of the oil trade with Iran could find themselves banned from U.S. transactions if they are caught, a significant deterrent given the United States’ financial clout.

Other incidents in recent weeks have contributed to the heightened tensions. Iran had threatened to retaliate for the seizure by the British navy two weeks ago of a supertanker near Gibraltar in the Mediterranean as it was carrying Iranian oil to Syria. Last week, the British navy said it had thwarted an attempt by Revolutionary Guard boats to board a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

The United States has accused Iran of responsibility for two attacks on shipping in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, in which magnetic limpet mines exploded against the hulls of foreign tankers in May and June. Iran has denied the charge, although it has often threatened to retaliate against the United States and world shipping if its oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz are brought to a halt

The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz in Washington, Carol Morello in New York and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.


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