US says it conducted ‘inspection’ of Iranian passenger plane

US Central Command said one of its fighter jets “conducted a standard visual inspection” of an Iranian civilian plane during a routine air mission on Thursday.

The statement came after Iranian media reported that two US fighter jets threatened an Iranian passenger plane as it passed through Syrian airspace on a regular flight path en route to Beirut.

“A US F-15 on a routine air mission in the vicinity of the [US military counter-Isis task force] 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,” Captain Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command, said in a statement late on Thursday. “The visual inspection occurred to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at Tanf garrison.”

Captain Urban said that once the F-15 pilot had identified the aircraft as a Mahan Air passenger plane, the F-15 “safely opened distance from the aircraft”. He added that “the professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards”.

Iranian state television said the pilot of the Mahan Air flight descended sharply, and according to some reports changed the flight route, in order to avoid confrontation. State television said the rapid descent caused huge turbulence and led to the injury of some passengers.

A US defence official told the Financial Times that the Iranian pilot may have acted in error. “At that distance it’s likely there was an audible sound in the cockpit and the pilot may have overreacted,” the person said.

Iranian state media reported that Tehran’s “initial” reaction would be to take “diplomatic and legal measures” to protest what it called a “hijacking” from “the US terrorist army”, according to Nournews, which is close to the Supreme National Security Council.

Earlier reports had blamed Israeli fighter jets for the incident, which occurred late on Thursday local time.

Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said the Islamic republic was looking into the incident and had already contacted the UN. 

He added that Iran, through the Swiss embassy, warned the US to stay away from the passenger aircraft on its return to the country. The aircraft landed in Tehran on Friday morning.

In early January, Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet moments after it took off from the international airport in Tehran. All 176 passengers and crew were killed.

US President Donald Trump had just days earlier taken the decision to kill Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a surprise strike when the general visited Baghdad. Tehran then launched retaliatory air strikes at US forces stationed at an Iraqi base. The Ukrainian plane took off shortly afterwards.

Iran initially denied shooting it down and later blamed Washington for heightened tension that led to the mistake.