September 23, 2020

Iranian Civilian Jet Swerves to Avoid American Warplane in Syria

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An Iranian passenger plane en route from Iran to Beirut swerved and dropped abruptly on Thursday to avoid a nearby American fighter jet, injuring several passengers before landing in Beirut.

Videos broadcast by Iranian and pro-Iran Lebanese media, which said the footage was taken by passengers, showed a fighter jet flying alongside the passenger plane, operated by Mahan Air, a privately owned Iranian airline.

Passengers then screamed as sudden turbulence seized the plane. In the aftermath, one video showed a passenger with his face and head bloodied, as well as a man lying down, apparently unconscious, while someone tended to him. Oxygen masks dangled overhead.

Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said in a statement later Thursday that an Air Force F-15 on “a routine air mission” near a small American military base in southern Syria had conducted “a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner.”

American fighter jets fly daily patrols near the base, Al-Tanf, where 150 to 200 U.S. troops train Syrian fighters, known as Maghawir al Thawra, who are fighting the Islamic State.

Captain Urban said the encounter on Thursday was conducted at “a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters” and was done to “ensure the safety of coalition personnel.”

“Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane,” Captain Urban added, “the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft.” He said the encounter was done “in accordance with international standards.”

A U.S. military official said there was a second U.S. Air Force F-15 “in the vicinity” of the Mahan Air jetliner, but only one of the U.S. aircraft closed to about 1,000 meters.

Iranian state television, citing an interview with the Mahan Air pilot, had reported earlier that the fighter jets were American.

Lebanese media said an elderly passenger had been taken to a hospital affiliated with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia and political party. Lebanese civil aviation authorities said the plane had been carrying 150 passengers, some of whom suffered minor injuries.

The American base at Al-Tanf, which sits near southern Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq, is strategically located to block Iran from controlling a land route through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

In recent months, the American-backed Syrian forces have skirmished with roving bands of suspected Islamic State fighters near Al-Tanf. In May 2017, American warplanes attacked a pro-Syrian government convoy that ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around the base.

The American-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria flies combat air patrols over northeastern Syria to support about 500 American troops who carry out missions with Syrian Kurdish allies on the ground to counter pockets of ISIS fighters.

The Mahan Air encounter came as Iran was already on edge after a series of mysterious explosions and violent attacks against its civilian and military infrastructure, including at a nuclear fuel enrichment complex in early July. Iranian officials have attributed some of the recent attacks to sabotage, though they have not said whether they suspect the United States.

The encounter could amplify tensions between Iran and the United States, which is pursuing a hard-line campaign of sanctions and other actions against Iran that the Trump administration calls a “maximum pressure” strategy.

Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said Iran had contacted the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which protects American interests in Iran, to warn that the United States would be held accountable if anything happened to the Mahan Air flight, which later left Beirut empty to return to Iran.

Mr. Mousavi said Iran’s mission to the United Nations had also conveyed this message to the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres.

“We are investigating the details of this incident and after information is complete we will take necessary legal and political measures,” Mr. Mousavi said.

A number of analysts said the Mahan Air episode appeared to fit a pattern of recent efforts to unnerve and destabilize Iran.

“The timing of this incident is revealing,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. “It takes place against the backdrop of recent bombings in Iran that are widely attributed to Israel with the blessing of the U.S.A.”

It remained far from clear, however, whether the warplane action was deliberate.

While Iran and the United States have many longstanding grievances, for Iran one of the most potent remains the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by the Vincennes, an American warship that had been patrolling in the Persian Gulf.

The plane, Iran Air Flight 655, carried 290 people. The United States later called it “a tragic and regrettable accident,” and subsequently paid millions to settle a lawsuit that Iran filed at the International Court of Justice.

Vivian Yee reported from Beirut, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Washington.