Iran returned two US drones, but without their cameras

It is not clear whether the cameras were retained by the Iranians or whether they fell into the Red Sea in the incidents

On Friday morning, Iran returned two captured U.S. naval drones after being threatened by U.S. destroyers, but the unmanned drones were returned without their cameras, The Wall Street Journal said, citing a U.S. official.

It was unclear whether the Iranians kept the cameras, the official added, or whether they fell when the Iranians took the drones out of the Red Sea and later returned them to the water.

U.S. officials said the drones’ cameras, radars and other equipment are commercially available and are not classified technology. But keeping the cameras and inspecting the drones up close could give Iran a better idea of ​​the system’s capabilities.

The disclosure of information about the cameras is the latest twist in the cat-and-mouse game between the Iranian and US navies this week.

The US Navy has deployed a network of advanced air and sea sensors in the region, known as Task Force 59, which is designed to use artificial intelligence to monitor Iran’s activities at sea and potential threats.

The US first began deploying the naval drones in October. They are about 7 meters long, rely on wind and solar energy and are equipped with cameras, radars and other sensors. The type of drone is known as Saildrone Explorer.

The seizure is the second time this week that Iran has attempted to capture unmanned US vessels.

The latest episode began on Thursday afternoon when an Iranian navy ship intercepted two of the unmanned drones that had been operating in international waters in the Red Sea.

Two US guided-missile destroyers, USS Nitze and USS Delbert D. Black, responded, along with US helicopters. The Iranians initially tried to hide the drones by placing them under tarps on the back of their ship, the US official said.

After the US Navy asked to release the drones, the Iranians agreed to put them back into the water on Friday morning, he said. The drones are currently in the possession of the Americans and are being transported to a port.

Iranian state television reported that several unmanned spying devices were intercepted by an Iranian destroyer to prevent threats to shipping. Once the international waterway was secured, the vessels were released, she said.

“The US Navy has been warned to avoid repeating such incidents,” Iranian television said.

A statement from the US Naval Forces Middle East Command said the drones had operated in the southern Red Sea for 200 days without incident. When they were captured, they were at least four nautical miles from the nearest sea lane, the statement added.

US officials had previously suggested that two Iranian ships were involved in the operation. But a detailed statement later released by US Naval Forces Middle East Command said the seizure was made by an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran.

Another incident occurred on Tuesday when a US Coast Guard vessel prevented an Iranian vessel from hijacking a naval drone in the Persian Gulf. Unlike the second incident, this one was carried out by a vessel operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of US naval forces in the region, criticized this Iranian action as “crude, unwarranted and inconsistent with the conduct of a professional naval force”.

No shots were fired and no American or Iranian personnel were injured in the naval clashes this week.

The confrontations come as the US and Iran negotiate a possible resumption of the 2015 accord that curbs Tehran’s nuclear program. However, diplomatic efforts to revive this agreement have so far failed.

On Thursday, a State Department spokesman said Iran’s latest negotiating position had been relayed to the US by European Union officials. In his statement, the spokesman said the US would respond to the Iranians through the Europeans, but added that Iran’s response was “not constructive”.

There have also been confrontations between US forces and Iranian-backed militias in recent weeks, US officials say.

On Aug. 15, an Iranian-backed militia in central Iraq attacked a U.S. base in al-Tanf, Syria, with two drones that were provided by Tehran, U.S. officials said. No American soldiers were injured or killed.

On August 24, the Biden administration responded with airstrikes against ammunition and logistics bunkers used by Iran-backed forces in Syria. That led to fresh fighting after Iranian-backed fighters fired missiles at US positions in eastern Syria, and the US responded with Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships and M777 howitzers.

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