DOD: US, Iranian planes nearly traded fire

An Iranian F-4 Phantom fighter jet closed in on an Air Force MQ-1 Predator aerial drone and its fighter escort as the unmanned aircraft was conducting "a routine classified surveillance flight" above international waters in the Persian Gulf, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a statement Thursday. 

Initial DOD reports said the Iranian fighter continued its pursuit of the drone until one of the Predator's escort fighters fired a flare "as a warning to the Iranian plane," forcing the fighter to break off its pursuit. 

Little later stated the Iranian jet broke off its pursuit of the Predator and its escorts after U.S. personnel issued a "verbal warning" to the fighter. 

The closest the Phantom got to the Air Force drone and its escort team was 16 miles, he added.

At no time during the incident did the U.S. aircraft cross into Iranian airspace, with the entire incident taking place over international waters, he added. 

Little's statement on Thursday did not say whether current Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Latest on historic Korea summit | Trump says 'many people' interested in VA job | Pompeo thinks Trump likely to leave Iran deal Should Mike Pompeo be confirmed? Intel chief: Federal debt poses 'dire threat' to national security MORE or the White House has been informed of the incident. 

The encounter between the Iranian fighter and American drone also comes ahead of President Obama’s visit next week to the Middle East. Obama is headed to Israel, his first trip there as president. A focal point of the trip will be to reassure Israeli leaders that the U.S. is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. 

Tuesday's incident was the second time Iranian fighter jets have engaged American drones operating in the Mideast. 

Last November, Iranian fighter jets opened fire on an American surveillance drone during an intelligence-gathering operation near the country. The U.S. aircraft did return to base unharmed, and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the president Obama were immediately informed of the attack, according to Little.

The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft was conducting surveillance near the Iranian coastline last November when two Iranian-flagged Su-25 Sukhoi fighters opened fire, according to the Pentagon. 

The Iranian jets fired twice on the U.S. drone, missing the aircraft both times, before the unmanned aircraft began its flight back to base. 

On its return, the Iranian jet tailed the drone for several miles in international airspace, before breaking off the pursuit once the unmanned aircraft entered sovereign territory. 

Following that incident, "the United States communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters consistent with long-standing practice and our commitment to the security of the region," Little said on Thursday. 

"We also communicated that we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so going forward," he added.