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US Drones Over Persian Gulf Now Have Escorts

The latest incident in the cat and mouse drone games the US and Iran are carrying out has an Iranian jet coming close to a US Predator drone over the Persian Gulf. US reports on the incident all rely on information released by Defense Department spokesman George Little and every report that I have read in the media includes, but does not comment on, the fact that this drone was accompanied by two US escort planes. As recently as the incident back in November when Iranian jets fired on a drone it is clear that drones were not escorted, so the presence of escorts is a new development.

Here is the New York Times on the incident:

The Pentagon press secretary, George Little, said that in the episode on Tuesday, an Iranian F-4 jet fighter approached within 16 miles of the Predator, which was being escorted by a pair of American military aircraft. United States officials did not say what type of American planes were involved.

“The Iranian aircraft departed after a verbal warning,” Mr. Little said. An initial Pentagon statement said one of the American escort planes had fired a flare to warn the Iranian jet away but later retracted that report. Mr. Little said that after the encounter in November, the United States sent a message to Iran that the American military would “continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region.”

Similar language is used to repeat Little’s information in reports from Bloomberg and the AP report carried by NPR.

That the escorts are new is clear from this CNN story about the November incident:

Two Iranian Su-25 fighter jets fired on an unarmed U.S. Air Force Predator drone in the Persian Gulf on November 1, the Pentagon disclosed on Thursday.

/snip/

Two U.S. officials explained the jets were part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps force, which has been more confrontational than regular Iranian military forces.

At least two bursts of gunfire came from the Su-25s’ cannons. The drone started to move away but the Iranian aircraft chased it, doing aerial loops around it before breaking away and returning to Iran.

/snip/

The drone’s still and video cameras captured the incident showing two Su-25s approaching the Predator and firing onboard guns.

The Iranian pilots continued to fire shots that went beneath the Predator but were never successful in hitting it, according to the officials.

U.S. military intelligence analysts are still not sure if the Iranian pilots simply were unable to hit the drone due to lack of combat skill, or whether they deliberately were missing and had no intention of bringing it down.

Clearly, the account of this incident is based on the cameras that were aboard the drone and no escort planes were present or we would also have the accounts of the escort pilots for what transpired. We also presumably would have had an account of our escort planes interacting with the Iranian jets.

The presence of the escorts could be a simple act of physical security. The very next paragraph in the New York Times story quote above states:

“We also communicated that we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so going forward,” Mr. Little said.

There is an additional possibility for why the drones now have escorts. As Marcy noted when Iran came into possession of our RQ-170 in December of 2011, there was reason to believe that Iran may have hacked into the drone’s control system and brought it down. Iran now flatly claims that to be the case and in fact the account of this most recent incident by PressTV concludes with this paragraph:

The Iranian military also grounded a US RQ-170 Sentinel stealth aircraft in December, while the drone was flying over the city of Kashmar, some 225 kilometers (140 miles) from Iran’s border with Afghanistan. The RQ-170 was brought down with minimal damage by the Iranian Army’s electronic warfare unit.

Escort planes flown by the US could be present not only for the physical security of deterring Iranian jets intent on shooting down the drone, but they might also be present to monitor electronic signals sent from Iran in attempts to bring the drone under Iranian control. In fact, the presence of two escort planes and the notation from the New York Times that the US did not identify what kind of planes these were leaves open the possibility that one escort could have been a US fighter jet and the other a more conventional aircraft carrying signal monitoring equipment.

Early Effects of NDAA Iran Sanctions Being Felt: EU Agrees on Oil Embargo, China Cuts Oil Contracts by Half

Iran's oil exports by country. (Click to enlarge) (From US Energy Information Administration; no, I don't know why China is at the bottom of the list)

Among the many controversial provisions in the NDAA which President Obama signed into law on New Years Eve are provisions aimed at disrupting Iran’s ability to export oil by punishing countries that do business with Iran’s central bank. Although the harshest sanctions on Iran’s bank don’t take full effect for another six months (and Obama says in his signing statement that he will regard the measures as nonbinding if they affect his “constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations”), Iran’s largest oil customers are planning to cut back dramatically on Iranian imports. The European Union has agreed in principal to a complete embargo on Iranian oil and China has already cut their imports from Iran for January and February to half their previous amount.

The moves by the EU and China will hit Iran very hard. As seen in the table above, China is Iran’s largest oil importer, buying 22% of Iran’s exports (but this only accounts for 11% of China’s overall imports), so cutting their order for the next two months in half will have a major impact on Iran’s overall oil revenues if replacement orders are not found quickly. The EU follows closely behind China, buying 18% of Iran’s oil exports. Note that these purchases are not spread evenly among EU nations, as Italy and Spain combine to account for over 75% of total EU imports of Iranian oil. Should the EU embargo actually take place, and even if China does not further reduce its purchasing, Iran is looking at a loss of about 30% of its oil export volume.

The Wall Street Journal describes some of the details of how the Iran oil sanctions are designed to take effect:

The bill specifically targets anyone doing business with Iran’s central bank, an attempt to force other countries to choose between buying oil from Iran or being blocked from any dealings with the U.S. economy.

Certain sanctions would begin to take effect in 60 days, including purchases not related to petroleum and the sale of petroleum products to Iran through private banks. The toughest measures won’t take effect for at least six months, including transactions from governments purchasing Iranian oil and selling petroleum products.

Reuters provides details on the status of the EU embargo:

European governments have agreed in principle to ban imports of Iranian oil, EU diplomats said on Wednesday, dealing a blow to Tehran that crowns new Western sanctions months before an Iranian election.

/snip/

Diplomats said EU envoys held talks on Iran in the last days of December, and that any objections to an oil embargo had been dropped – notably from crisis-hit Greece which gets a third of its oil from Iran, relying on Tehran’s lenient financing. Spain and Italy are also big buyers.

“A lot of progress has been made,” one EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The principle of an oil embargo is agreed. It is not being debated any more.”

China is cutting its orders and is driving hard bargains on payments for the oil it is purchasing: Read more

As US-Iran Threat Exchange Continues, Pakistan Detains Three Iranian Border Guards

Iran and the US continued to exchange threats over the long holiday weekend. On Saturday night, Barack Obama signed the NDAA, which put into place the ability to enact strong sanctions on banking institutions involved in the sale of Iranian oil. Substantial flexibility is built into the legislation to allow the US to exempt various players in the oil market, so it is still quite uncertain how the sanctions will be implemented. As the video here shows, Iran also test-fired two types of missiles over the weekend prior to the ending of the ten days of naval war games. However, the threats have not ceased, as Iran has now issued a vague warning to the US not to bring the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, which exited the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, back into the Gulf.

With all of these events taking place, it would be easy to overlook a strange incident on the Iran-Pakistan border on Sunday. Both Iran and Pakistan now say that Pakistan has detained three Iranian border guards who crossed into Pakistan. The guards shot two men who were in a car they were chasing, and one of the men died. The shooting victims are Pakistani nationals.

One of the most detailed accounts appears in the Washington Post via AP:

Pakistani authorities have yet to decide what to do with three Iranian border guards who they say crossed into southwestern Pakistan while chasing after smugglers and killed one them, a government official said Monday.

The incident occurred Sunday in the Mazah Sar area of Baluchistan province, a desolate, unpopulated region where the border is not clearly marked.

Aalam Farez, a senior government official in Washuk district, where Mazah Sar is located, said the Iranians admitted to inadvertently crossing into Pakistan. But, he said, they claimed the two people they shot — one of whom died — were bystanders and that the people they were chasing escaped.

After the shooting, Pakistani border personnel chased the Iranians back across the border and detained them, Pakistani officials have said. They also seized the surviving gunshot victim and determined both of those who had been shot were petty smugglers.

The Express Tribune (via AFP) adds significant background on the region where this event took place:

The Iranians reached Mazan Sar Mashkail, in Washuk district, three kilometres (1.8miles) inside Pakistan where they opened fire on a vehicle they were chasing, according to officials in Balochistan.

“All three personnel of Iranian border security force were taken into custody for their penetration inside Pakistan and killing a Pakistani national on our soil”, Saeed Ahmad Jamali, Deputy Commissioner of Washuk district told AFP.

/snip/

Mazan Sar Mashkail is around 600 kilometres southwest of Quetta, the main town of insurgency hit Baluchistan province, which borders Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province.

Iranian embassy officials in Islamabad were unavailable for comment late Sunday but Iran in the past has blamed a Sunni extremist group, called Jundallah, for launching attacks inside Pakistan [sic] from Sistan-Balochistan.

Jundallah says it is fighting Tehran’s Shiite rule to secure rights for Sunni Balochis who form a significant population in Sistan-Balochistan, which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Read more