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Iran briefly seizes U.S. Navy sea drones in two incidents this week

Iran's navy seized two U.S. sea drones in the Red Sea on Thursday before releasing them on Friday, in the second such incident this week. 

In a statement, the U.S. Navy said the unmanned vessels, known as Saildrone Explorers, were operating near one another in international waters when they were taken aboard an Iranian ship. A defense official said two U.S. Navy ships shadowed the Iranian naval vessel. The U.S. ships asked over ship-to-ship communications that the Iranian vessel release the drones, and it eventually did. They were held for about 18 hours.

Sea surface drones aboard an Iranian navy ship
Iran's navy seized but later released two U.S. sea surface drones in the Red Sea, Iranian state television reported on Sept. 2, 2022, in the second such incident in days. WANA via Pool / Reuters

The most recent incident involved Iran's official navy. It followed an incident on Monday, when a support ship from the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps attempted to seize a U.S. drone in the Persian Gulf. Video released by the U.S. military showed the IRGC support ship towing the U.S. drone. The U.S. Navy responded and prevented the theft of the drone.

"I hesitate to characterize it as a pattern, other than to say that it's indicative of the kind of behavior that we've seen from Iran in the region for, frankly, many years, when it comes to this kind of disruptive and inappropriate activity," Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a briefing on Tuesday after the first attempted seizure. 

The U.S. Navy Saildrone Explorers started operating in the waters of the Middle East in January. 

In a statement about the first seizure, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said Saildrone Explorers are equipped with sensors, radars and cameras for navigation and data collection, but the technology is available commercially and does not store sensitive or classified information.

The latest maritime incidents come as nuclear negotiations with Iran appear to be faltering. 

The U.S. has confirmed it received Iran's response to the European Union's framework to restore the Iran nuclear deal, but the State Department's principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement that Iran's response was "unfortunately not constructive." 

For several weeks, there seemed to be progress in the discussions to restore the 2015 deal that the Trump administration exited in 2018. The Biden administration has pledged to restore a nuclear deal, saying it's the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

One of the reasons the Trump administration cited for leaving in 2018 was because the deal did not limit Iran's support of proxy groups throughout the Middle East. In recent weeks, the U.S. conducted an airstrike on sites in Syria affiliated with the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

The Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl said the airstrikes demonstrated that the U.S. commitment to push back on Iran's support for terrorism "is not linked to wherever we end up on the nuclear deal." 

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