An American F-15 fighter jet flew about 1,000 meters from an Iranian passenger airliner over Syria, while conducting what it called a “standard visual inspection” of the aircraft, officials from U.S. Central Command said.
Reports began to spread on social media about the encounter with the Mahan Air airplane earlier on Thursday, as did videos allegedly taken by passengers on the plane of the encounter. Initial reports said the fighter may have been from Israel. The passenger aircraft landed at an airport in Beirut, Lebanon, afterwards.
In a release Thursday evening, CENTCOM spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban said that the F-15 was on a “routine air mission” near the al-Tanf garrison base in southern Syria at the time. Al-Tanf is the home of a small number of American commandos who train local anti-Islamic State fighters, but some national security experts argue the base is intended to check Iranian influence.
Urban said that the F-15 conducted the inspection “to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at al-Tanf garrison.” When the F-15 identified the aircraft as a passenger plane, its pilot “safely opened distance” from the Mahan aircraft, Urban said.
“The professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards,” Urban said.
Iranian state TV said on Thursday that the passenger plane was “harassed” by fighter jets, according to the Associated Press. Reports said the interception forced the pilot to sharply change altitude, flying low and causing slight injuries among some of the passengers.
According to the Iranian TV report, the fighter jets came within a distance of 100 meters (328 feet) of the Iranian Airbus A310. The pilot quickly took the aircraft to a lower altitude to avoid a collision with the jets, the report said.
Data from the flight recorded by website FlightRadar24.com showed the airliner climbed from 34,000 feet to 34,600 feet in under two minutes around the time of the incident, then dropped back down to 34,000 feet within a minute after.
Iranian state TV quoted the pilot of the Iranian plane as saying the fighter jets' pilots had identified themselves as American over radio communication.
Reuters reported that Beirut airport head Fadi Hassan said that all passengers exited the aircraft after it landed, and there were only minor injuries.
The Iranian news agency Tasnim News said Iran’s government had told United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres that “if any incident happens to this plane [on the way back to Iran], Iran will hold the United States responsible.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Iran is investigating the incident.
Mahan Air is a privately owned airline based in Tehran that flies across the Mideast. In 2011, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the airline for allegedly “providing financial, material and technological support” to Iran’s Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. The Treasury also alleged Mahan Air had carried weapons, goods and personnel for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
All this comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers over two years ago.
In the time since, a series of escalating incidents have occurred across the Mideast between the two countries, including the U.S. killed an Iranian general in a drone strike and Tehran launching ballistic missiles targeting American forces in Iraq.
In July 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian passenger aircraft, killing 290 and worsening relations between the two nations.
Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.