In yet another display of the heightened tension between Iran and the United States under President Donald Trump, several passengers on an Iranian commercial plane were reportedly injured Thursday when the aircraft swiftly dropped altitude after being approached by at least one U.S. military fighter jet over Syrian airspace.
Iranian media reported Thursday that two fighter jets flew near the Mahan Air passenger plane, forcing the pilot to quickly descend. Video footage from Iranian state broadcasting network IRIB showed one passenger with blood on his face and another lying on the floor of the aircraft.
Although initial reports out of Iran suggested Israel could be responsible, security sources told an Israeli public broadcaster that the country "had nothing to do with the incident," and a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command confirmed late Thursday that an American military aircraft was involved.
We are concerned by reports that an Iranian civilian airplane had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid contact with military aircraft over Syria. This is yet another reminder of the many innocent lives at risk over the reckless heightening of tensions. https://t.co/JQbXLmKGBN
— NIAC (@NIACouncil) July 23, 2020
The U.S. CENTCOM spokesperson, Capt. Bill Urban, said that "a U.S. F-15 on a routine air mission in the vicinity of the [American-led joint task force against ISIS] At Tanf garrison in Syria conducted a standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters from the airliner this evening."
"The visual inspection occurred to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at At Tanf garrison," Urban said. "Once the F-15 pilot identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 safely opened distance from the aircraft. The professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards."
As Al Jazeera reported:
On Friday, Iran dismissed the U.S. explanation as "unjustified and unconvincing."
"The harassment of a passenger plane on the territory of a third country is a clear violation of aviation security and freedom of civilian aircraft," Laya Joneydi, vice president for legal affairs, was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to similarly accuse the U.S. government of harassment:
U.S. illegally occupies territory of another State and then harasses a scheduled civil airliner—endangering innocent civilian passengers—ostensibly to protect its occupation forces.
Audacity to compound lawlessness upon lawlessness
These outlaws must be stopped before disaster.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 24, 2020
Critics in the U.S. envisioned how the Trump administration would have reacted had an Iranian fighter jet approached an American passenger plane:
Wanna know how outrageous it is that a US fighter jet harassed a *civilian* plane? Just imagine what would happen if #Iran did it
Note silence from people who claim to care most about Iranians. To them Iranian lives only matter when there’s political gainhttps://t.co/84ZtEZKe9O
— Assal Rad (@AssalRad) July 24, 2020
I guess one should be grateful there was no pat-down... Not hard to imagine what would have happened if Iranian fighter jets had done this to a US passenger jet ... https://t.co/Eu7bx0Bir7
— Ali Vaez (@AliVaez) July 24, 2020
The Mahan Air plane was traveling from Tehran to Beirut. Rodger Shanahan, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, told Al Jazeera that "what the Pentagon hasn't said is why they sent up an aircraft to look at this passenger plane whereas other passenger planes [fly] this route and they haven't been intercepted in the past."
Noting that United States and Israel have long accused the airline of transporting weapons to Iran-backed armed groups in Syria, Shanahan added, "that may well have been one of the reasons why the U.S. chose to take a closer look at the aircraft to check whether there were passengers on board."
Thursday's encounter with the F-15 was not the first time Mahan Air—a private Iranian airline established in 1991—has had issues with the U.S. government. In 2011, Washington imposed sanctions on the company, accusing it of providing support to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Some countries have banned the airline from operating at their airports. U.S. Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in May that the Trump administration "will not hesitate to target those entities that continue to maintain commercial relationships with Mahan Air."
According to the New York Times, after the American "inspection" over Syria,
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.
Tensions have continued to build between Washington and Tehran since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal over two years ago—but particularly since the U.S. assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January. Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, concluded earlier this month that killing the general violated international law.