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Iran says 'spy drone' violated airspace in May amid US escalation

By AFP - Jun 24,2019 - Last updated at Jun 24,2019

This undated US Air Force file photo released on June 20, shows a photo of a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft (AFP file photo)

TEHRAN — Iran said on Sunday a "spy drone" had encroached its airspace in May about a month before it downed an American drone as part of a series of escalatory incidents between Tehran and Washington.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Tweeted a map saying the US-made MQ9 Reaper drone — also widely used for carrying out military strikes — had entered his country's airspace on May 26.

Iran shot down a US Global Hawk drone on Thursday, saying it had violated its airspace near the strategic Strait of Hormuz — a claim the United States denies.

US President Donald Trump called off a planned retaliatory military strike Friday, saying the response would not have been "proportionate", with Tehran warning any attack would see Washington's interests across the Middle East go up in flames.

On Sunday US national security adviser John Bolton, cautioned Iran against misinterpreting the last-minute cancellation.

“Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness,” Bolton said in occupied Jerusalem.

In Kuwait, the US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, urged “all nations to use their diplomatic effort to urge Iran to de-escalate and meet diplomacy with diplomacy”.

The downing of the US drone came after a series of attacks on tankers in the congested shipping lanes of the Gulf, which Washington has blamed on Tehran, exacerbated already-tense relations between the two countries.

Iran has denied responsibility for those attacks.

With the military option called off, Washington secretly launched cyber-attacks against Iranian missile control systems and a spy network in response to the downed drone, according to US media reports.

US media said the attack crippled computers used to control missile launchers and a spying group tracking ships in the Gulf.

Iran is yet to officially react to the claim, but Fars news agency called the move a “bluff” and said it was meant to “regain lost reputation for the White House” following the downing of its drone.

Trump, who spent Saturday huddling with his advisers, initially said he was keen to be Iran’s “best friend” — if the country agreed to renounce nuclear weapons.

“When they agree to that, they’re going to have a wealthy country. They’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend,” he told reporters.

Iran has denied seeking a nuclear weapon, and says its programme is for civilian purposes.

A multinational accord reached by Tehran and world powers in 2015 sought to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.

But Trump left that agreement more than a year ago and has imposed a robust slate of punitive economic sanctions designed to choke off Iranian oil sales and cripple its economy — which he now plans to expand.

“We are putting major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday,” tweeted Trump, who has also deployed additional troops to the Middle East.

“I look forward to the day that sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again — The sooner the better!”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added: “When the Iranian regime decides to forgo violence and meet our diplomacy with diplomacy, it knows how to reach us. Until then, our diplomatic isolation and economic pressure campaign against the regime will intensify.”

A minister from Britain’s Foreign Office was in Tehran on Sunday to meet top Iranian diplomats for “urgent de-escalation” of tensions, yet the Iranian party said the talks were “repetitive”.

Minister of State for the Middle East Andrew Murrison had the “usual talking points”, said Kamal Kharazi, the head of the Strategic Council of Foreign Relations at Iran’s foreign ministry.

These included saying a European payment mechanism to help Iran with US sanctions “will soon become operational, that Britain has always supported the [nuclear deal] and has its own problems with America... such talks that have always been repetitive,” Kharazi added.

With the US out of the deal, Iran has said it would reduce some of its nuclear commitments unless the remaining partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — help it circumvent US sanctions and sell its oil.

“#EconomicTerrorism brings tension,” Zarif Tweeted, adding it was “prudence” that prevented a war breaking out between Tehran and Washington.

A top Iranian military official warned Washington against any strikes.

“Firing one bullet towards Iran will set fire to the interests of America and its allies” in the region, armed forces general staff spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi told the Tasnim news agency.

“If the enemy — especially America and its allies in the region — make the military mistake of shooting the powder keg on which America’s interests lie, the region will be set on fire.”

Following his comments, Iran said it had executed a contractor for the defence ministry’s aerospace organisation who had been convicted of spying for the United States.

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