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Cameras missing from US Navy drones briefly seized by Iran, Pentagon says

It remains unclear whether Iran's navy took the cameras or whether they became dislodged when hauled onto the deck of the frigate IRIN Jamaran in the Red Sea last week.
A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army official website on September 11, 2020, shows an Iranian navy warship during the second day of a military exercise in the Gulf, near the strategic strait of Hormuz in southern Iran.

The cameras onboard two unmanned, unarmed sea drones operated by the US Navy in Middle Eastern waters are missing after the devices were briefly captured by the Iranian navy last week.

The United States' unmanned Saildrone Explorers use commercially available technology and do not contain sensitive information, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Tuesday.

The US Fifth Fleet’s new Task Force 59 has been deploying Saildrones and other unmanned surface vessels (USVs) in an effort to better monitor maritime traffic in Middle Eastern waterways using unmanned technology linked to an artificial intelligence network.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the two Saildrones’ cameras were missing after the crew of the Iranian navy frigate Jamaran hauled in the devices while transiting the Red Sea last week.

The Jamaran’s crew released the Saildrones the following morning after being pursued by two US Navy destroyers, the USS Delbert D. Black and the USS Nitze, as well as at least one MH-60S helicopter.

Why it matters: Pentagon spokesperson Ryder said it was unclear whether Iranian forces were in possession of the Saildrone’s cameras, leaving open the possibility that they may have become dislodged as the devices were hauled in and later dumped back into the sea.

Last Thursday marked the second attempt by Iranian naval forces to capture US Navy sea drones in less than a week.

Earlier in the week, an IRGC navy support ship, the Shahid Baziar, hooked a cable to another unarmed Saildrone in the Persian Gulf and attempted to tow it away. The IRGC ship’s crew released the device after the pursuing USS Thunderbolt, a coastal patrol ship, relayed warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio.

Neither incident escalated to the point of hostility, US military officials said. Iranian media reports have suggested the seized drones posed a hazard to maritime traffic in the region, but a US defense official speaking to Al-Monitor last week rejected that claim, saying the drones had been deployed in the water for nearly a year without incident.

All three Saildrones were in international waters when picked up by Iranian sailors last week, American military officials said. The two drones seized in the Red Sea were at least four nautical miles from the nearest active sea lane, the US Fifth Fleet said at the time.

What’s next: The incidents — which officials say mark Iran’s first ever attempt to seize Task Force 59’s unmanned vessels — come as Washington and Tehran appear once again to be at an impasse over the final touches on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

"We do not see the two as connected,” Brig. Gen. Ryder said during a press briefing at the Pentagon today.

A return to the accord would see renewed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for broad economic sanctions relief, but the text does not address Iran’s conventional weapons production nor its support for proxy militias in the region.

Critics of the deal, including many in Israel’s top security echelons, worry that it will lead to increased cash flows to Iran’s proxy militias and will only restrict Tehran’s nuclear enrichment for a few years.

Iran-backed groups have continued to launch projectiles at bases used by US troops in the region, sparking a new bout of retaliatory airstrikes by the United States last month.

The tit-for-tat cycle between the United States and Iran forces in the region shows no sign of abating. US defense officials have said Iran retains a long-term objective of expelling American forces from the region but that neither side wants to see escalation toward open conflict.

Know more: Read Jared Szuba’s report on how the Iranian navy attempted to conceal the two US Navy drones it seized in the Red Sea last week.

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