Unraveling the mystery of US F-15s intercepting Iran’s Mahan air, what was it

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At just after four in the afternoon on Thursday, July 23 Iranian Mahan Air flight 1152 was crossing into Syrian air space. Passengers were shocked to see out their oval-shaped windows what appeared to be a fighter jet approaching the plane. Panic ensued.
The pilot rapidly descended and then climbed, causing the plane to careen down 125 feet and then up 500 feet. It was a bumpy ride for less than a minute, made worse by passengers shouting about the warplane just outside their window.

The warplane was an American F-15 conducting a visual surveillance of the flight. Mahan Air was flying close to a US base called the Tanf Garrison that is in Syria near the Jordanian border. The airline had flown this route before. The pilots did not expect to have to take any evasive maneuvers and the crew and passengers had not been warned to expect anything.
When Mahan Air 1152 landed in Beirut one of the passengers sent video of the incident to Iran’s IRIB News. The passenger was apparently an IRIB journalist. He said Israeli jets had intercepted them. It was now nightfall. Videos began to circulate online around ten in the evening. The flight soon departed back to Iran. This time it flew a slightly different route. It flew north of Damascus, over the Syrian desert and then near Tanf to Iraqi airspace. The flight was scheduled for 2 hours and 20 minutes each way, around 1,445 km.
Media reports about the panic aboard flight 1152 began after reports circulated online around 9:45 p.m. Various social media accounts such as @Intel_Sky, @AuroraIntel, @Avischarf and @Gerjon_ helped track the flight and unravel part of the story. Regional media, such as Al-Mayadeen, reported that Israeli jets had threatened the civilian airliner and others spread rumors online that Israeli F-15s had used the civilian airliner as cover, claiming Israel had used this maneuver before over Syria.
First of all, it is clear that while the flight conduct a rapid descent and ascent, it leveled off to 34,000 feet quite quickly and then descended to Beirut. About half an hour later it was on the tarmac.
Iran is angry about the interception of the airliner. It has sought to highlight the incident in order to condemn the US. It appears Iran’s regime media and pro-regime accounts didn’t know whether to blame Israel of the US for the incident. Press TV and others blamed Israel initially. The confusion was not helped by IRIB, which changed its account from blaming Israel to the US.

Unraveling the mystery of US F-15s intercepting Iran's Mahan air ...

The pilot of the Mahan Air flight appears to have known the jets were American. By around 11 in the evening Israeli media were quick to clarify that these were not Israeli aircraft. While Iranian media spread rumors of “injured and killed” aboard the flight, the reality appears to be that few were badly injured from the rapid descent and ascent. Authorities at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut said passengers disembarked safely with only minor injuries.
Syria’s regime apparently knew the jets were American as well, as was clear from Syrian regime media sources on the evening of July 23. Syria has complained in the past about US warplanes harassing civilian airliners near Al-Tanf. They also claim US planes fly there with “warning systems off” and have almost caused accidents with civilian airliners.
On the ground the US maintains a 55km security zone around the base. US F-15s have shot down drones approaching Tanf in the past. In June 2017 An F-15E Strike Eagle shot down two drones, one of which was an Iranian-made Shahed 129 near Tanf. There were at least four incidents in which US forces struck Syrian regime elements, including on May 18, June 6, June 8 and June 20, 2017.
According to an article in The Drive by Tyler Rogoway, in May 2020 there were a group of F-15E Strike Eagles in Jordan with the US 389th Fighter Squadron. Known as the Thunderbolts they are based in Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. They were based at Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan. This base, near Azraq in Jordan, has been expanded to accommodate more US forces and new hangars and sunshades for F-15s and other aircraft in the last year.
These are the “go-to multi-role fighter with quick access to southern Syria,” Rogoway wrote. They have carried out sorties over Tanf and may also have been involved in the mission to strike at ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. Air Force Times wrote in February that the F-15E Strike Eagles with the 389th were deployed to an “undisclosed location” in Jordan. They call under the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. There are other F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath in the UK deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia from the US 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. The Jordanian airbase the F-15s likely flew from is 250km from Tanf.
F-15s flying at 700 km/h would reach the area in around twenty minutes, more than enough time to intercept the Mahan Air which had been crossing Iraq for an hour of its flying time heading toward the intercept point just beyond the border. Whatever raised used suspicions likely would have led to an alert to US after Mahan left Tehran and made its destination clear. The US Treasury had sanctioned Mahan Air in December 2019 for ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The US Central Command says that the F-15 was on a routine air mission near Tanf and that is conducted a “standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner at a safe distance of approximately 1,000 meters.” The US did the inspection to ensure the safety of Coalition personnel at Tanf garrison. The US took almost twelve hours after the incident to release the statement.
The incident happened in Syria when it was nine in the morning in Washington, DC Iranian media reported it several hours later, so it was already in the afternoon when the US would have been asked to react to the reports. Only in the late afternoon did CENTCOM release its statement. Correspondents in Washington began hearing about the US reaction between seven in the evening and nine in the evening, which is twelve hours after the fighter jets first encountered the Mahan air flight. 
While Iran has now denounced the US “harassment” of Flight 1152 as “unlawful” and a “terrorist” act, the US says that it conducted the inspection as a professional intercept in accordance with international standards. Iran disagrees and says the passenger plane was moving in a normal flight corridor and the US fighters conducted an unlawful maneuver.
The US says its aircraft, apparently one that came close to the plane and a second that hung back, opened distance when they confirmed it was just a Mahan Air passenger aircraft. Iran wants Lebanon and Syria to file a complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organization. It is not clear by what law  the US operates fighter aircraft over Tanf and the Syrian regime as well as Russia have both complained about the US presence in Syria.
The Tanf air corridor is regularly used by Iranian aircraft. In fact, 1152 seems to have used this route often between January and February. There is also apparently a radio beacon that uses VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) and directional measuring equipment (DME) near the Tanf base across from route 2 in Syria. Social media user @RedIntelPanda notes that the beacon enables pilots to use it to cross the area.
The incident over Tanf is only in its early days of being explained and answer sought. Iran will want to show that the US harasses civilian airliners, at a time when Iran is being critiqued for having shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner in January after Iran carried out ballistic missile attacks on US forces in Iraq. Iranians point out that the US has also shot down an Iranian passenger plane in the past. In 1988 The USS Vincennes guided-missile cruiser mistakenly shot down Iran Air flight 655, killing 290 people. Iran-US tensions are already high in the region. Now they are worse.

Unraveling the mystery of US F-15s intercepting Iran’s Mahan air, what was it Unraveling the mystery of US F-15s intercepting Iran’s Mahan air, what was it Reviewed by Anson Moore on July 24, 2020 Rating: 5

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