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Drones watch every US ship in the Gulf, Iran navy chief claims

Iran’s Press TV shared video July 19 showing drone images of ships.

SCREENSHOT

By ADAM TAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: July 23, 2019

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates ⁠— A fleet of drones has allowed Iran to watch every U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf region and develop an archive of their daily movements, Iran's top naval commander said in an interview published on Tuesday.

The comments come days after President Donald Trump said that a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone. The Islamic Republic denied that a drone had been shot down and subsequently released a video of a U.S. ship that it claimed, without explanation, proved their version of events.

In an interview with a local news site, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, the head of Iran's navy, expanded upon this point, claiming that drones watch every U.S. ship in the region.

"Our drones have significant ranges and have no limitations in communication links. We have a complete archive of images of American vessels approaching from very far distances," Khanzadi said in an interview with the Young Journalists Club.

Khanzadi said there was "an immense archive of the day to day and even moment to moment movements of American forces, whether in the Persian Gulf or Oman sea."

Iran has recently bragged about the technological advances in its drone program and promoted videos with dozens of drones running staged bombing runs. Khanzadi's remarks were greeted with skepticism by some analysts, who say that Iran has often inflated its capabilities in a bid to rally domestic support and confuse foreign rivals.

"There's more than an element of bravura in the claim" that Iran can watch all U.S. ships in the region, said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow specializing in aerospace at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London.

Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and North Africa editor at Jane's Defence Weekly, said there was little doubt that Iran could track ships going through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which a significant amount of the world's traded oil is transported.

"Their ability to track all those ships once they are in the Gulf is far more questionable," he added.

Khanzadi's comments highlight the central role that unmanned aerial vehicles are playing in the dispute over the Persian Gulf. Last month, Iran shot down a U.S. drone that it said had entered its airspace. In response, the United States planned a retaliatory attack, but Trump called it off at the last minute.

Trump said last Thursday that a U.S. navy ship destroyed an Iranian drone that came too close to it. The drone came within 1,000 yards of the USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz before the crew "took defensive action" and "immediately destroyed" it, according to the president.

The next day, Iran rejected the claim and said that all of its drones had returned to their bases. "We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else," tweeted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard later released video apparently shot from a drone tracking the USS Boxer. The drone recorded three hours of video of the USS Boxer and five other vessels from when they had entered Strait of Hormuz, the Revolutionary Guard said on their website.

Though it was not clear how the video proved that a drone had not been shot down, it did offer a glimpse into how Iran uses the unmanned vehicles to track U.S. ships.

Since the United States pulled out of a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers and reimposed sanctions last year, tensions have been running high with Tehran. Last week, Iranian forces seized at least one British tanker that it said had entered their waters illegally.

In his interview on Tuesday, Khanzadi said that drone surveillance had allowed it to track the British ship. "We observe all the fleets of the enemy, especially the United States, from their origin to the moment of entrance to the region on a point-by-point basis," Khanzadi said.

Though Iran's drones are used primarily for surveillance, U.S. officials and experts have expressed concern that drones could be fitted with weapons and used in combat by Tehran and its allies.

Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency ran an article on Tuesday that suggested American military leaders were worried of risks posed by the drone technology.

"Pentagon generals are deeply concerned that if Iranian drones can pass their radars without being tracked by their terminating mechanisms, they might as well carry out military attacks on their vessels if needed," the article said.

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