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Videos: Iran captures US Navy sea drone; then capitulates immediately

The USS Thunderbolt (bottom right) approaches Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy ship Shahid Baziar as it unlawfully tows a Saildrone unmanned surface vessel in international waters of the Persian Gulf on Aug. 30, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
August 30, 2022

An Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ship briefly captured and began towing a U.S. Navy sea drone in international waters on Tuesday. When confronted by a U.S. Navy ship and helicopter, Iran surrendered immediately.

U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) released two videos of the IRGC vessel Shahid Baziar towing a Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel in international waters of the Arabian Gulf before being confronted by the U.S. Navy Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Thunderbolt (PC 12).

The first video shows the Shahid Baziar towing the small unmanned sailboat.

NAVCENT began operating the Saildrone Explorer sea drone in the Arabian Gulf on Jan. 27 as part of an expanded by the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet to test the integration of new unmanned systems. According to developer Saildrone, the Explorer vessel is a 23 feet (7 m) long solar and wind-powered vessel that can operate on its own for more than 365 days at a time. The vessel has a variety of sensors for ocean surveying purposes and NAVCENT said it’s using the vessel to build “a shared picture of the surrounding seas” in its Middle East area of operations.

A second video shared by NAVCENT showed the USS Thunderbolt approaching alongside the IRGC vessel.

NAVCENT spokesman Tim Hawkins told American Military News that the U.S. 5th Fleet also launched an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26 to intervene in the incident.

“The actions taken by U.S. naval forces in response resulted in the IRGCN vessel disconnecting the towing line to the USV and departing the area approximately four hours later,” Hawkins said. “The U.S. Navy resumed operations without further incident.”

Hawkins said the Saildrone Explorer is a commercially available unmanned vessel and does not store sensitive or classified information.

Still, 5th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper said the IRGCN’s actions “were 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 added.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla also said, “The professionalism and competence of the crew of the USS Thunderbolt prevented Iran from this illegal action. This incident once again demonstrates Iran’s continued destabilizing, illegal, and unprofessional activity in the Middle East.”

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The incident comes just days after exchanges of fire between U.S. forces and suspected Iran-backed militia groups in Syria.

The incident also comes amid ongoing negotiations between President Joe Biden’s administration and Iran officials over a potential return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA). President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and Iran has breached several of the terms laid out in the agreement.

On Aug. 19, CNN reported Iran had dropped a demand that the U.S. take the IRGC off the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was still holding to a demand that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stop inspections at undeclared Iranian nuclear sites in order to restart the JCPOA.

It remains to be seen if this latest interaction between the IRGC and a U.S. Navy sea drone will add a further hurdle to diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran.