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Trump says US downs Iranian drone, refueling tensions as both nations dig in

“The drone was immediately destroyed,” Trump said in a surprise announcement at the White House. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.”

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: July 19, 2019 10:06:20 am
Trump says US downs Iranian drone, refueling tensions as both nations dig in 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/US Marine Corps via The New York Times) 

Written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, David E. Sanger and Richard Pérez-Peña

The US military downed an Iranian drone Thursday in what President Donald Trump called an act of self-defense against hostilities in the Strait of Hormuz.

Officials said the relatively small drone came within 1,000 yards of the USS Boxer, a US amphibious assault ship in the strait. It was not known if the drone was armed, but a Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said that it had “closed within a threatening range” before being shot down over international waters.

“The drone was immediately destroyed,” Trump said in a surprise announcement at the White House. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.”

Trump spoke on the same day that Iran said it had seized a ship carrying fuel through the strait in what it described as a smuggling operation — just days after a United Arab Emirates vessel disappeared in the Persian Gulf.

At the same time, Iran’s chief diplomat offered a modest road map for easing tensions with the United States.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran appeared to brush off Trump’s broadside. “The drone issue is being investigated, but based on the latest news I have from Tehran, we have no information about losing a drone,” he told reporters at the United Nations.

The drone’s downing, and the simultaneous first sprout of a diplomatic offer, captured the precarious crossroads where the adversaries of 40 years find themselves.

The Trump administration and parts of the Iranian government have each appeared to be desperately seeking an off-ramp, aware that any move from shadowboxing to open conflict could be disastrous.

But both have dug themselves in.

In New York, Zarif initially appeared determined to calm tensions with the United States.

At a morning meeting with journalists, Zarif said he was willing to discuss possible ways out of the crisis that erupted after Trump last year withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

For the first time, he floated an opening bid of modest steps that Tehran would be willing to take as part of new talks between the two adversaries.

The proposal would accelerate what the nuclear accord envisions as a “transition day,” now scheduled for 2023. That is when Iran formally ratifies an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow far more intrusive inspections of the country, including sites that Tehran has never declared as nuclear-related.

In return, under the agreement, Congress would have to act to lift virtually all U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The offer is all but certain to be rejected by the Trump administration, which describes Iran as increasingly desperate as sanctions take full effect. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has often said that sanctions will be lifted only in return for an agreement that permanently ends Iran’s production of nuclear fuel, limits its missile program to purely defensive weapons and ends its support for terrorist groups.

Yet on Thursday, Zarif insisted that Iran would never back away from its missile program while the United States arms its Arab adversaries with similar weapons. Yet he described each of Tehran’s recent steps to escalate its uranium enrichment as carefully calibrated — and said they “could be reversed” if the United States backed away from sanctions that were imposed once Trump left the nuclear deal.

Still, the Iranian diplomat struck a philosophical tone if nothing came of efforts to restart negotiations.

“We will survive, we will prosper, long after President Trump is gone,” he said. “Our time slots are in millennia.”

He also said “we came a few minutes away from a war” last month after Tehran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone.

“Prudence prevailed,” Zarif said.

In that case, Washington and Tehran disagreed over whether the drone was flying over international waters. The Trump administration considered retaliating with military strikes against a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries. At the time, officials said Trump had approved the strikes.

But with minutes to spare and planes already headed to their targets, the president abruptly pulled back to prevent what he said would have been the deaths of about 150 Iranians. He also said the number of deaths would not be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

On Thursday, Zarif also played down Iran’s detention of the vessel from the strait last weekend. He said it was a small ship, not a tanker, and was carrying about 1 million liters of fuel. He described it as a typical smuggling operation, given that Iran subsidizes fuel for its own population.

About 20% of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow Persian Gulf waterway that is a vital conduit for maritime petroleum traffic.

The vessel and its country of origin were not identified. But an account published by PressTV, an official English-language Iranian website, included a video clip it said had been provided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, showing the vessel’s name on its stern as the Riah. That is the name of the Emirati ship, incommunicado since late Saturday while it had been traveling in the Persian Gulf.

A Revolutionary Guard statement said the episode took place south of Iran’s Larak Island.

In Washington, the State Department condemned what it called the Revolutionary Guard’s “continued harassment of vessels and interference with safe passage in and around the Strait of Hormuz” and demanded the immediate release of the ship and crew.

U.S. officials have blamed Iran for apparent attacks on tankers in May and June, which came after new sanctions that aimed to cut off its ability to sell oil, a pillar of its economy.

In his announcement Thursday afternoon, Trump said that the Iranian drone had ignored multiple calls to stand down before it was destroyed.

A Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the episode, said the drone was downed by jamming equipment aboard the Boxer that forced it to lose control and crash.

The Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, can launch attack jets and helicopters from its landing deck. It is one of several ships in a ready group of Marines and aircraft from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Washington has also accused Iran of sabotaging six tankers in the Gulf of Oman in recent months, an accusation that Tehran has denied. And on Thursday, the Treasury Department issued new sanctions against five people and seven businesses that it said provided sensitive material to suspicious parts of Iran’s nuclear program.

In a statement, officials said front companies in China and Belgium obtained aluminum and other metals for Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Co., which is involved in Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.

In his comments to journalists — at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, one of only three buildings where he is allowed to be while in the United States — Zarif said he was willing to meet with U.S. senators to discuss ways to defuse the tensions.

He was coy about whether he planned to meet with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has proposed himself as a quiet emissary to Iran from the Trump administration.

“I am seeing people from Congress,” said Zarif, nonetheless insisting he would talk with Paul only “as a respected representative,” rather than as an emissary from Trump or Pompeo.

But Trump cast doubt on reports that he would consider allowing Paul to negotiate with Iran on the administration’s behalf. “I didn’t appoint him,” the president told reporters.

“All we want to do is have a fair deal,” Trump said.

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