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Iran shoots down US drone amid escalating Gulf tensions

Revolutionary Guard says it downed 'spy' craft over its southern province of Hormozgan, with Washington putting the incident in international airspace
A map showing the area where a US drone was shot down by Iran. Tehran says the drone was downed over Hormozgan province, while the US says it was over international waters (MEE)

The US military has said that one of its drones was shot down in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, challenging Iran's account that the aircraft had been flying over Iranian territory.

"Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false," said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US military's Central Command.

"This was an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace."

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Urban said the drone was shot down in international airspace at approximately 11:35pm GMT on Wednesday.

US President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, called the targeting of the drone "a very big mistake", AFP news agency reported. 

"This country will not stand for it, that I can tell you," Trump said. 

The drone was a US Navy MQ-4C Triton surveillance model, one US official told Reuters news agency. 

Earlier, Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) said it shot down a US "spy" drone in the southern province of Hormozgan, which borders the Strait of Hormuz, the Guards' news website Sepah News reported.

State news agency IRNA carried the same report, identifying the drone as an RQ-4 Global Hawk.

"It was shot down when it entered Iran's airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in the south," the Guards' website added.

The IRGC said that the drone had turned off its identification transponder, the state broadcaster IRIB reported.

"The drone took off from a US base in the southern Persian Gulf... It had turned off all its identifying equipment in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy," IRIB quoted a Guards statement as saying.

Missile strike on Saudi Arabia

The shooting down of the drone came as Trump was briefed on a missile strike against Saudi Arabia claimed by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Manufacturer Northrop Grumman says on its website that the Triton can fly for over 24 hours at a time, at altitudes higher than 16km, with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

A timeline of US-Iran tensions

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Tensions have skyrocketed between the Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump announced last May that he was pulling out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

Here's a timeline of key events that have led to, and marked, the recent escalation:

8 May 2018: US President Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Under that agreement, the Iranian government agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Trump also says Washington will reimpose "the highest levels of economic sanctions" on Tehran.

5 November 2018: The US reimposes sanctions on Iran's oil, banking and transport sectors. At the same time, Trump says he wants to gradually impose sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, citing concerns about upsetting energy markets and causing global price spikes.

8 April: The Trump administration blacklists Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The move marks the first time Washington has formally labelled another country's military a terrorist group.

30 April: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signs a bill into law that declares all US troops in the Middle East as terrorists, and defines the US as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

2 May: The US stops issuing waivers to countries that import oil from Iran. Those waivers had allowed certain states, including Turkey, China, Japan, India and South Korea, to keep buying Iranian oil, despite American sanctions - and provided a lifeline for Tehran.

6 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton announces that the Trump administration is deploying an aircraft carrier, as well as ships and bombers, to the Gulf. The move was meant to send a "clear and unmistakable message" to the Iranian government, Bolton said, amid intelligence reports that Tehran was planning attacks against American troops in the region.

7 May: Iran says it plans to withdraw from parts of the 2015 nuclear agreement with major world powers. The move comes one year after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal.

8 May: The Trump administration announces a new round of economic sanctions that will target Iran's metals trade - iron, steel, aluminium and copper, specifically.

9 May: As the drums of war began to beat louder in certain circles in Washington, Trump tells reporters that he "would like to see them [Iran] call me" - a sign the US president is perhaps seeking to de-escalate the situation.

12 May: The United Arab Emirates says four oil tankers were damaged in "acts of sabotage" off the coast of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE did not assign blame for the incident, but said it would launch an investigation into what happened.

13 May: Mike Pompeo makes a surprise visit to Brussels, where he seeks to get European leaders on board with Washington's "maximum pressure" strategy against Tehran. The US secretary of state gets a lukewarm reception, however, with the European Union's foreign policy chief instead urging the US to show "maximum restraint".

14 May: Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says the country will not go to war with the US. "Neither we nor they - who know war will not be in their interest - are after war," Khamenei says.

15 May: Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, says the country is committed to "de-escalation" with Iran, while refusing to assign blame for the 12 May "sabotage" of the oil tankers.

That same day, the US orders non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, citing fears of an imminent attack by Iranian-backed proxies in that country.

19 May: A Katyusha rocket is fired into Baghdad's Green Zone, an area that houses government offices and foreign diplomatic missions, including the US embassy in Iraq.

21 May: A previously unknown Iraqi group claims responsibility for the rocket fired into the Green Zone. The Operations of Martyr Ali Mansour says the attack is retaliation for Trump's decision to pardon a soldier who killed an Iraqi detainee in 2009.

In Washington that same day, US lawmakers are briefed by members of the Trump administration about its claims that Iran poses a threat to the country. Several members of Congress tell reporters they left the meetings unconvinced.

24 May: Washington announces plans to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to counter Iranian threats, a decision Iran blasted as "extremely dangerous".

28 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton says the attack on four vessels off the Emirati coast was caused by "naval mines almost certainly from Iran".

30 May-1 June: Saudi Arabia hosts a summit in Mecca to discuss recent tensions with Iran. On the eve of the talks, Riyadh blasts what it called Iranian "interference" in the region and demanded "firmness" over attacks in the Gulf.

7 June: The US imposes sanctions on Iran's largest petrochemicals holding group, accusing Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company of providing financial support to an engineering firm with ties to the IRGC.

13 June: Two oil tankers suffer damage after an unspecified attack in the Gulf of Oman. Hours after the incident, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo points the finger at Iran, without providing evidence to back up his claim.

Iran immediately denies it was involved in the attacks, accusing Washington of seeking to derail diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation.

14 June: The head of the United Nations calls for an independent investigation into the incidents in the Gulf of Oman.

Earlier in the day, US Central Command releases a video that it says shows Iranian IRGC members removing an unexploded mine from one of the damaged ships. That comes after Trump himself says the incident has Iran "written all over it".

Meanwhile, the owner of the Japanese vessel says crew members reported seeing objects flying towards them - which would appear to refute the US's version of events. "The crew told us something came flying at the ship and they found a hole," the owner says. "Then some crew witnessed the second shot."

17 June: The US will send roughly 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announces.

20 June: Iran says it shot down a US military drone entering Iranian airspace near the Straits of Hormuz. A US official confirms that a drone was shot down but says it was in international airspace.

21 June: US President Donald Trump says he ordered and then aborted a military strike on Iran roughly 10 minutes before the operation took place.

Fighter jets were in the air to strike multiple Iranian military installations in response to Iran's shooting down of an unmanned US drone a day earlier, according to US media reports.

Trump says he called off the strike after US generals reportedly told him the attack would kill 150 Iranians. The US operation was "not proportionate", the US president says.

24 June: The US imposes a new round of sanctions on Iran, this time targeting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

25 June: Trump threatens Iran with "obliteration" if the country were to strike American targets. His comments come after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House "mentally retarded" and vowed that Tehran would not back down from US sanctions. 

Also on Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweets an article written by John Bolton in 2017, which outlines how the US should back out of the nuclear deal and detailing why the Iranians would not want to negotiate once the US withdraws.

28 June: The US Senate votes down an amendment that sought to bar Trump from being able to declare war on Iran without authorisation from Congress.

4 July: A supertanker suspected of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions is detained in Gibraltar. Senior Iranian officials deny claims the tanker was headed to Syria. 

5 July: A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander suggests that Iran should seize a British oil tanker if the Iranian vessel detained off Gibraltar is not released immediately.

9 July: General Joseph Dunford, a top US general, announces plans to set up a coalition of allied countries willing to patrol key waterways in the Gulf region. 

Dunford says the US military would provide command ships and surveillance technology, while its allies would escort ships and patrol the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.

11 July: British officials say three Iranian boats attempted to "impede the passage" of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, forcing a UK warship to intervene. Iran denies the accusation

Meanwhile, Gibraltar police announce the arrest of the captain and chief officer of the Iranian supertanker on suspicion that the ship had breached EU sanctions on Syria on 4 July. 

Police also seize documents and electronic devices from the ship, which remains in custody. 

12 July: US lawmakers approve a measure that would force President Donald Trump to seek congressional approval before ordering military strikes against Iran.

16 July: Iran says it has ruled out entering into negotiations over its ballistic missile programme, directly contradicting statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier that same day.

18 July: US President Donald Trump says American warship USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping channel in the Gulf.

Top Iranian officials deny the report, however, with Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi saying Iran did not lose "any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else".

The RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system (UAS), also made by Northrop Grumman, can fly at high altitudes for more than 30 hours, gathering near-real-time, high-resolution imagery of large areas of land in all types of weather.

The US military has in recent days confirmed an attempt by Iran to shoot down a US drone last week as well as the successful shooting down of one on 6 June by Houthi forces in Yemen.

'Our airspace is our red line'

A senior Iranian security official said on Wednesday that Iran would "strongly respond" to any violation of its airspace.

"Our airspace is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our airspace," the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council as saying.

Tensions between Iran and the US have mounted since last year when Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers, reimposing sanctions.

Concern about a military confrontation has increased since attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week and on four tankers off the United Arab Emirates on 12 May, both near the Strait of Hormuz, a major conduit for global oil supplies.

The US and its regional ally, Saudi Arabia, blamed Iran for the incidents. Tehran has denied responsibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that a US military attack on Iran would be a catastrophe for the Middle East that would trigger a surge in violence and a possible refugee exodus.

Putin, speaking during his annual televised question and answer session, said Moscow believed Tehran was in full compliance with its nuclear commitments and called sanctions against Iran baseless.

The US military has sent additional troops as well as military equipment, including aircraft carriers and B-52 bombers, to the Middle East in recent months. 

Iran said last week that it was responsible for the security of the Strait of Hormuz, calling on US forces to leave the Gulf.

In protest of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign, in May Iran said it would start enriching uranium at a higher level unless other European signatories to the nuclear deal protected its economy from the US sanctions within 60 days.