In what a top US commander called a “flagrant” and “unwarranted” incident, the US Navy blocked an Iranian ship from taking an American marine drone in the Persian Gulf. According to a press announcement from US Naval Forces Central Command, as US forces in the area were crossing international waters, they noticed the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps support ship Shahid Baziar. Baziar was hauling the unmanned surface vessel Saildrone Explorer.

The USS Thunderbolt, a US Navy coastal patrol ship, was “operating nearby and immediately responded,” the Navy stated. US soldiers in the vicinity directly engaged with the Iranians to request the return of the maritime drone after the Iranians hooked a line to it, according to a US defense official. Soon after, the US 5th Fleet subsequently launched an MH-60S Sea Hawk Helicopter from Bahrain and maneuvered it above the maritime drone as the US Navy patrol boat got closer to the drone, said CNN.

The Iranian ship cut the towing line from the US drone when the US responded with both Sea Hawk helicopter and the coastal ship, leaving the region four hours later, according to the release. The release added that the US Navy then went on with the operations “without incident.”

The incident occurs at a pivotal moment in US-Iran relations. The talks to resurrect the Iran nuclear agreement are delicate, but US officials have expressed some confidence about the most recent initiatives. But they have emphasized that there are still differences between the two sides.

In a statement on the event, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of the US 5th Fleet, US Naval Forces Central Command, and Combined Maritime Forces, referred to the IRGCN’s actions as “flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force,”

“U.S. naval forces remain vigilant and will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows while promoting rules-based international order throughout the region,” Cooper said. Iran’s activities were sharply condemned as being illegal by Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, Commander of US Central Command, which is in charge of managing the US military presence in the Middle East.

“The professionalism and competence of the crew of the USS Thunderbolt prevented Iran from this illegal action,” Kurilla said. “This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal, and unprofessional activity in the Middle East.” According to the announcement, the maritime drone that the IRGCN tried to steal is “US government property and equipped with sensors, radars and cameras for navigation and data collection.”  According to the press announcement, the drone “does not store critical or classified information.”

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