Iranian civilian aircraft involved in near-miss with suspected American warplanes over Syria

The Mahan airlines encounter, if confirmed to be with US warplanes, could amplify tensions between Iran and the United States, which is pursuing a hard-nosed campaign of sanctions and other actions against Iran.

The New York Times July 24, 2020 07:56:41 IST
Iranian civilian aircraft involved in near-miss with suspected American warplanes over Syria

Beirut: An Iranian passenger plane on its way from Iran to Beirut swerved and dropped abruptly to avoid two fighter jets flying close by, injuring several passengers before landing in Beirut, Iranian and Lebanese television stations reported Thursday evening.

Videos broadcast by Iranian and pro-Iran Lebanese media, which said the footage was taken by passengers, showed one of the fighter jets 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.

The television stations initially described the fighter jets as Israeli, but Iranian state television, citing an interview with the plane’s pilot, said the jets were American. An Israeli official denied any involvement in the near-miss, which took place in Syrian airspace. There was no immediate comment from US military officials.

A person in Syria who was briefed by Iranian and Hezbollah officials said the warplanes had intercepted the passenger jet over Al-Tanf, the site of a small US military base in southern Syria. This person, who is close to the alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and Syria and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fighter jets were believed to belong to the US-led international coalition that has been fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

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

The US-led coalition still 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 Islamic State fighters.

US fighter jets also fly daily patrols near the Al-Tanf base, in southern Syria, where 150 to 200 US troops train Syrian counter-Islamic State fighters known as Maghawir al Thawra.

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

Iran is 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.

The Mahan airlines encounter, if confirmed to be with US warplanes, could amplify tensions between Iran and the United States, which is pursuing a hard-nosed campaign of sanctions and other actions against Iran.

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.

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

Mousavi said Iran’s mission to the United Nations had also conveyed this message to the UN 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,” Mousavi said.

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

“The timing of this incident is revealing,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Centre 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 USA.”

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

While Iran and the US have many long-standing grievances, for Iran one of the most potent remains the 1988 shooting-down of an Iranian passenger plane by the Vincennes, a US warship that had been patrolling in the Persian Gulf.

The plane, Iran Air Flight 655, carried 290 people. The US 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 and Farnaz Fassihi c.2020 The New York Times Company

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