Several days ago, there were news reports that American F-15 Strike Eagle fighter aircraft flew close by an Iranian airliner. Videos from inside the Iranian plane also surfaced. The Iranian pilot sharply dropped the plane’s altitude, to reportedly avoid a collision with the F-15, causing a panic among the passengers, including a few minor injuries. One of the passengers, a journalist for Iran’s IRIB News, sent a video of the incident.
The Iranian state-run media claimed initially that fighter that made an “aggressive” close pass on the Iranian airliner was Israeli; they later changed the story identifying the plane as American.
The Iranian airliner was identified as Flight 1152 of Mahan Air flying a routine route from Tehran to Beirut. Contrary to what posted on Twitter by a reporter for the BBC, the Iranian jet did not make an emergency landing in Beirut — it was the scheduled destination. When the Mahan Air flight returned to Iran it flew a different route: North of Damascus, over the Syrian desert, and then near but not over Tanf to Iraqi airspace, covering the same distance back to Tehran.
The pilot of the Iranian jet clearly stated that the F-15 pilot identified himself as an American.
The Americans said that they maintained a distance of 1,000 meters, which is a recognized safe distance. The Iranians claimed that the F-15 came within 100 meters and this caused the pilot to sharply decrease his altitude to avoid a collision.
The website FlightRadar24.com showed the data from the airliner and the pilot climbed from 34,000 feet to 34,600 feet shortly before the time of the incident, then dropped back down to 34,000 feet immediately after.
“[The] 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,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted on Twitter.
Mahan Air routinely flies the Tehran to Beirut route that passes close to the 55-km deconfliction no-fly zone near the U.S. Special Forces base at al-Tanf in eastern Syria. Yet this particular flight was different. This flight was flying directly over the base. So, the U.S. scrambled up two F-15s to conduct, what the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) called a “standard visual inspection.”
CENTCOM spokesman, Navy CPT Bill Urban said that “the professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards.”
The U.S. has maintained that 55-km zone for the past several years and has shot down drones that have attempted to overfly the base. In June 2017, an F-15E Strike Eagle shot down two drones near Tanf, one of which was an Iranian-made Shahed 129.
A closer look at Mahan Air reveals anything but a typical commercial airline. The company was sanctioned in December 2011, by the United States Department of Treasury. It was also designated as a material and transportation supporter of terrorism, “for providing financial, material, and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF).”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described Mahan Air as “the terrorist airline.”
According to a U.S. Government Fact Sheet published by the U.S. Embassy in Germany, “The airline’s current chairman and chief executive, Hamid Arabnejad Khanooki, is closely associated with the IRGC, specifically with the division that developed into the Quds Force. The U.S. sanctioned Arabnejad in 2013 for facilitating a shipment of illicit cargo to Syria on Mahan Air aircraft.”
“Mahan Air has flown IRGC-QF operatives, weapons, equipment, and funds to international locations to support Iranian terrorist proxy groups. It has been used by the IRGC-QF to fly personnel to and from Iran and Syria for military training, facilitating covert travel of IRGC-QF members by bypassing normal security procedures and flight manifests,” the fact sheet continued.
There are a number of questions surrounding the incident: Why did the Iranians fly directly over the base at Tanf since they could have well bypassed it without covering extra distance? Was there some kind of aerial surveillance equipment on board, something the Soviets used to do with Aeroflot during the Cold War years? Was it an innocent mistake or did the Iranians try to push the envelope once again? And it should not be neglected that Iran is still dealing with the fallout of shooting down a civilian airliner that had just taken off from one of their own airfields.
The U.S. scrambled the F-15s from its bases in Jordan and had them over Tanf in a matter of just about 20 minutes. It is unlikely that the incident was a test by the Iranians of the U.S.’s response time since that would be something Iran would already know. Were the American jets scrambled to intercept the airliner well in advance of its arrival over Tanf or were they just “conducting a routine patrol” to protect American interests?