RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Iran's Revolutionary Guard says it has shot down a U.S. drone that was flying in Iranian airspace. The Guard's news agency called the craft a spy drone. A U.S. official has confirmed to NPR that the aircraft was taken down, but that official disputes Iran's account of the facts. How will this play into the already tense situation between Tehran and Washington?
We've got NPR's Peter Kenyon with us to try to answer that question. He is following the story from Istanbul, Turkey, and has covered Iran for many years. Peter, thanks for being here.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: Details are scant, obviously, at this point. But what can you tell us about what happened, at this point?
KENYON: Well, first we heard was this report from the Iranian news site linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. And it said the drone had been shot down after entering Iranian airspace in the south of the country. And initially, a U.S. military spokesman had a very narrow response, saying, well, there weren't any U.S. aircraft in Iranian airspace at the time. And then later, U.S. officials began confirming to NPR and other news outlets that a drone had indeed been shot down over international waters, says the U.S.
MARTIN: And that matters because it would determine whether or not Iran was acting defensively.
KENYON: I think that's right. The question then becomes did the U.S. cross into Iran's airspace and Iran respond as a matter of defense or not? Iran's foreign ministry is condemning what it calls a violation of Iran's airspace. They say it's a provocative move. But the U.S. insists that the drone was struck over international waters, which would suggest an act of aggression by Iran. And that, combined with the initial reaction that there weren't any U.S. aircraft inside Iranian airspace at all on Wednesday, would set up that dispute.
MARTIN: Do we know anything about the drone? I mean, the Iranians say it was a spy drone. Was it something that was built for surveillance?
KENYON: It was a surveillance drone. It had no pilot. That's important because the Trump administration has said a single U.S. fatality could trigger a very strong response against Iran. There was, as you recall, Washington's announcement recently, a thousand more troops and a bunch of new equipment going. A lot of that had to do with surveillance.
MARTIN: Remind us, Peter, of the broader context here, the climate in which this is happening.
KENYON: Well, this comes after lots of things that have escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran. You could go back to President Trump pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, or designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group then moving ships and troops to the Gulf of Oman as foreign tanker ships were being attacked. That was blamed on Iran. Iran denies it. This could certainly further escalate the situation. You could argue militarily not much has changed, but as an act of aggression, the shooting of a U.S. aircraft in international waters - if that's how it turns out - could be seen in Washington as something that demands a response.
MARTIN: So I mean, there have been years of these kinds of standoffs, these tense moments between the U.S. and Iran. I wonder at this point, is there a playbook to this? I mean, can you - as a close observer of Iran, can you anticipate what happens next? I mean, what are you going to be looking for?
KENYON: I don't know that there's a playbook. I mean, you know, several years ago, Iran made a big deal out of showing off a drone that it said it had captured. That didn't lead to any huge spike in tensions at that point, but we have a very different situation now, certainly more tense. And we're not seeing cooler heads prevail. The head of the Revolutionary Guards is already saying this sends a clear message to America. The guards say the drone was flying in secret with a transponder shut off.
And this is different from previous incidents - the attack on the tankers, et cetera - because this was a direct attack on a U.S. military aircraft, and Iran is talking about it. They're not denying it. Those factors will likely have an impact here as the U.S. decides how to respond.
MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thank you, Peter.
KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.