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Iran acknowledges shooting at US surveillance drone

But says aircraft was flying inside nation’s air space

Iranian jets fired on an MQ-1 Predator drone similar to the one pictured above last week, but they missed and the aircraft returned safely to its base, US officials said.

JULIANNE SHOWALTER/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian jets fired on an MQ-1 Predator drone similar to the one pictured above last week, but they missed and the aircraft returned safely to its base, US officials said.

TEHRAN — Iran’s defense minister confirmed Friday that Iranian warplanes had fired at a US drone last week but said they had taken the action after the unmanned aircraft had entered Iranian airspace.

The assertions by the defense minister, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, were the first acknowledgment from Iran that the episode had happened. He spoke less than 24 hours after the Pentagon first disclosed the shooting, involving two Iranian jet fighters and the US aircraft, a Predator surveillance drone, during what US officials described as a routine surveillance mission Nov. 1 in international airspace over the Persian Gulf.

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It was the first time that Iranian aircraft have been known to fire at a US drone. The drones are one of the many ways that the United States has sought to monitor developments in Iran over more than three decades of estrangement between the two countries.

The United States said it had protested the shooting via the US interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran and had warned the Iranians that the drone flights would continue.

The US officials said the Predator had been flying 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast. Vahidi did not specify where the episode took place, but his assertion that it was in Iranian airspace presented a possible new complication to quiet diplomatic efforts by both countries to engage in direct talks following President Obama’s reelection.

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Vahidi’s version of events also differed with the Pentagon version in another way: He said the two Iranian planes, which the Pentagon had identified as Russian-made Su-25 jets known as Frogfoots, belonged to the Iranian Air Force. The United States had said the two planes were under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose activities are routinely more aggressive than the conventional air force.

Vahidi, whose account was reported by the Iranian Labor News Agency and other media outlets, said that last week an unidentified plane had entered Iranian airspace over its waters in the Persian Gulf. He said the intruder had been ‘‘forced to escape,’’ following action by Iran’s air force.

It is unclear why Iranian officials had kept the episode a secret. It also is unclear, from the Iranian account, whether the warplanes had sought to shoot down the drone and missed, or had fired warning shots to chase it away.

A lawmaker, Mohammad Saleh Jokar, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s parliament, also said the US aircraft had trespassed.

“Early last week, a US drone which had violated Iran’s airspace received a decisive response by the armed forces that were stationed in the region,’’ he said in a Friday interview with the Young Journalist Club, an Iranian semiofficial news agency.

Jokar said the drone had been on a spying mission.

“The US drone entered our country’s airspace with an aim to gather information because there is no other justification,’’ he said.

The Predator’s sensor technology is so sophisticated that it could have monitored activities in Iran from the distance cited by the Pentagon officials in their account.

The Iranian firing on the aircraft was legal, Jokar said.

“Any violation against Iran’s airspace, territorial waters, and land will receive a strong response by the Islamic Republic of Iran.’’ he said.

A possible confrontation in the heavily militarized Persian Gulf could present new obstacles in efforts to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, the most intractable issue in Iran’s difficult relations with the West.

But in what appeared to be a sign of progress, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday that it was resuming negotiations with Iran regarding inspector access to sensitive Iranian sites, aimed at resolving questions about whether Iran had engaged in nuclear weapons development work.

The agency, the nuclear monitoring arm of the United Nations, said in an announcement that it was sending negotiators to Tehran on Dec. 13, the first such meeting since August. An agency spokeswoman, Gill Tudor, said in an e-mail to news agencies that the purpose of the talks was ‘‘to conclude the structured approach to resolving outstanding issues related to Iran’s nuclear program.’’

Inspectors from the agency have been insisting on the right to an unrestricted visit to Parchin, an Iranian military site near Tehran where, the inspectors suspect, research work in nuclear weapons triggers may have been carried out.

Iran has repeatedly denied its nuclear work is aimed at producing a weapon but has rejected the agency’s requests to visit Parchin or other sites that the Iranians deem classified. Commercial satellite imagery earlier this year suggested the Iranians were seeking to clean up the Parchin site, which further raised suspicions among the nuclear agency officials.

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