Iran seizes two American sea drones in second incident in days

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Iran, Navy;
State TV said the Iranian navy found ‘several unmanned spying vessels abandoned in the international maritime routes’ on Thursday. (PA Photo)

Iran said its navy seized two American sea drones in the Red Sea before letting them go – the latest maritime incident involving the US navy’s new drone fleet in the Middle East.

Commander Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the Navy’s Middle East-based Fifth Fleet, acknowledged the incident on Friday to The Associated Press but declined to immediately elaborate.

Iranian state television aired footage it said came from the deck of the Iranian navy’s Jamaran destroyer, where lifejacket-wearing sailors examined what appeared to be two Saildrone Explorers.

State TV said the Iranian navy found “several unmanned spying vessels abandoned in the international maritime routes” on Thursday.

“After two warnings to an American destroyer to prevent possible incidents, Jamaran seized the two vessels,” state TV said.

“After securing the international shipping waterway, the Naval Squadron No. 84 released the vessels in a safe area.”

It marks the second such incident in recent days as talks over Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers hang in the balance.

The earlier incident involved Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, not its regular navy, and occurred in the Persian Gulf.

The Fifth Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year.

The fleet’s area of responsibility includes the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.

It also stretches as far as the Red Sea reaches near the Suez Canal, the waterway in Egypt leading to the Mediterranean, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.

The region has seen a series of maritime attacks in recent years.

Off Yemen, bomb-laden drone boats and mines set adrift by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have damaged vessels amid that country’s years-long war.

Near the United Arab Emirates and the Strait of Hormuz, oil tankers have been seized by Iranian forces.

Others have been attacked in incidents the US navy blames on Iran.

Those attacks came about a year after then-president Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which sanctions on Tehran were lifted in exchange for it drastically limiting its enrichment of uranium.

Negotiations to revive the accord now hang in the balance.

The US cast doubt on Iran’s latest written response over the talks on Friday.

Iran now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels as officials openly suggest Tehran could build a nuclear bomb if it wishes to.

Iran has maintained its programme is peaceful, though Western nations and international inspectors say Tehran had a military nuclear programme until 2003.

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