AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Iran announced today it has seized a British-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz - this after the White House announced that a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone yesterday. President Trump had these tough words for Iran today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We hope for their sake they don't do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody's ever paid a price.
CHANG: Iran, for its part, denies that any of its drones were destroyed. For more on all of this, we're joined now by NPR's Tom Bowman at the Pentagon.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: OK, so let's just start with this Iranian drone destroyed, not destroyed. What is going on? What do we know so far?
BOWMAN: Well, U.S. officials are saying what was assessed to be an Iranian drone was destroyed by this electronic jamming device, this air defense system aboard the USS Boxer while it was in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. And we're hearing from Pentagon officials that the drone, which I'm told was unarmed, was on an aggressive course toward the Boxer, coming within a thousand yards. The U.S. sent several warnings, and it kept coming.
Now, in the past, the U.S. says Iran has deployed drones that interfere with flight operations, sometimes at night. Also, some drones used by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels had been filled with explosives. So this was a safety concern, and the U.S. crew destroyed the drone.
Now, beyond that, the U.S. is now saying there was at least one Iranian helicopter heading toward the American ship, and the Boxer actually sent up one of its own helicopters to intercept it and essentially shoo it away. Also beyond that, some small Iranian fast boats were closing with the American ship. They were warned off.
CHANG: And it's correct that Iran is still denying that it has lost a drone.
BOWMAN: Right. Iran has said it did not lose a drone, said all were accounted for and suggested maybe the U.S. shot down one of its own drones. And everything is moving pretty quickly. Britain said Iran seized a British-flagged vessel in the Strait of Hormuz.
BOWMAN: Now, the official Iranian news agency says as far as the British-flagged tanker, the ship had turned off its tracker, ignored several warnings by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards before being captured.
CHANG: There's a lot of moving parts here. How does the seizure of the ship play into all of this about the drone?
BOWMAN: Well, it makes everything more tense not only with the U.S. and Iran but, of course, now Britain.
BOWMAN: And the latest Iranian move may be retaliation because the British seized an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean two weeks ago. There were indications it was smuggling oil to Syria. Now, the crew of that ship is still being held in Gibraltar. Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to set up a maritime security force that would protect ships in the Persian Gulf and nearby waterways. The U.S. would provide, I'm told, overall command and control. Other nations would provide either patrol or maybe escort ships in the area. Pentagon and State officials are actually working on this today. And right now we have no sense yet of what countries will take part.
CHANG: Can you just take a moment here to just step back and explain what set off this latest round of tensions between the U.S. and Iran?
BOWMAN: Well, it really all started well over a year ago, when the Trump administration pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposed stiff sanctions on Iran. Some Pentagon officials had spoken in favor of the deal, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He and others believed it kind of kept a lid on Iran. And since then, there's been a real concern at the Pentagon that the more hawkish voices in the White House - national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - they could lead to serious military action with Iran, which they say would be disastrous. So now we have some military action, but Secretary Pompeo said just today the president is willing to sit down and talk with Iran with no preconditions.
CHANG: That's NPR's Tom Bowman from the Pentagon.
Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.