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The Pentagon confirmed Thursday two Iranian fighter jets fired upon, but did not hit, an unarmed U.S. drone flying Nov. 1 in international airspace over the Persian Gulf.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. Air Force Predator was performing "routine surveillance" about 16 miles off the Iranian coast when two Iranian SU-25 jets intercepted it and opened fire. He said it was the first time Iranians had fired on an unmanned U.S. aircraft over the Gulf.
U.S. officials contacted the Iranians and informed them the U.S. would continue to conduct such surveillance flights in international airspace. The Predator was located east of Kuwait and west of Iran.
According to the Pentagon's account, the Predator was on a routine surveillance mission at about 4:50 a.m. EST over the Gulf on Nov. 1 and was operating at a distance of about 16 miles off the Iranian coastline when two of Iran's aging, Soviet- made Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes approached.
At least one of the single-seat Sukhois fired "multiple rounds" at the Predator from its wing-mounted, twin-barrel 30-mm mini-gun, but missed its target. The slow-moving Predator moved further off the coastline but the Sukhois pursued and one of them fired and missed again, Pentagon officials said.
CNN first reported the engagement quoting two intelligence sources who said the Predator's onboard cameras recorded the Su-25 Frogfoots approaching the Predator and then firing upon it with the jet's onboard guns.
Little disclosed the incident Thursday during a press conference. The Obama administration chose not to make the attack public five days before the election. Little said the sources who leaked the report illegally disclosed classified information.
The U.S. military buildup in the Gulf and efforts to curb Tehran's nuclear program were topics of fierce debate between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) in the runup to the election but the Pentagon chose to keep the incident secret until information was about to be leaked.
"We don't typically comment on classified surveillance missions," said chief Pentagon spokesman George Little. "Someone apparently disclosed this," Little said, which was why the Pentagon was now choosing to comment.
Little did not comment on where the drone was operating from, but it has been widely reported that the U.S. maintains major facilities at the Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates. The CIA is also known to operate drones from Al Dhafra.
It's unclear if the Iranian pilots meant to hit the Predator and simply missed or intentionally fired a warning shot. However, a Predator is a slow moving and relatively easy target to hit making it hard to believe the pilots meant to destroy the drone, said a U.S. Air Force official.
The Su-25 Frogfoots who shot at the Predator belonged to the Iranian Revolutionary Corps force, according to the CNN report. IRGC forces are typically more aggressive toward U.S. forces compared to Iran's conventional military. IRGC troops helped Iraqi insurgents build improvised explosive devices and target U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iranian officials claimed to shoot down a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone in December 2011 showing off pictures of what looks like the Air Force's highly classified stealth aircraft. However, Pentagon officials never confirmed the event.
Collecting intelligence on the Iranian's nuclear program is a high priority for U.S. intelligence agencies as tensions rise between Iran, Israel and the U.S. However, it's unlikely the Predator could collect any valuable intelligence on an Iranian nuclear site over the Persian Gulf. Iran's nuclear reactors are located much farther inland.
While this is the first time Iran has shot at U.S. drone over the Gulf, Iranian fast-attack boats have recently harassed U.S. warships in the Gulf's oil shipping lanes.
-- AP contributed to this report.