4 December 2012
BEIRUT—Iran aired footage Tuesday of what it said was a U.S. drone it had captured over Iranian airspace in the Persian Gulf, a claim the U.S. Navy denied.
The incident underscored the tensions, and behind-the-scenes surveillance battles, between the West and Iran over Iran's nuclear program. Iran has targeted U.S. drones before and used its announcement to burnish its defense credentials. Americans familiar with the defense industry, meanwhile, underplayed the intelligence significance of the craft Iran said it had captured, characterizing it as a small and relatively low-technology model.
Iran's English-language news channel Press TV aired an 11-minute footage Tuesday of two Iranian military officials inspecting an intact drone that the broadcast identified as a ScanEagle, made by a Boeing subsidiary.
The drone was captured by a naval unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps when it entered Iranian airspace in the Persian Gulf after it had circulated for a few days in the area, the IRGC said in a statement Tuesday. It didn't say when the alleged capture occurred.
All of the U.S. Navy's so-calledUnmanned Aerial Vehicles operating in the Middle East were 100% accounted for, said Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.
"We have seen the [Iranian] footage. There is nothing we see that corroborates the claims made by Iran," Cmdr. Salata said.
Last month, Tehran sent a letter to the United Nations formally protesting what it called repeated U.S. violations of Iranian airspace with drones, according to a copy viewed by The Wall Street Journal. U.S. officials have confirmed they have stepped up surveillance of Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor amid concerns about the security of weapons-grade plutonium there, but said information-gathering is conducted beyond Iran's borders.
Tuesday's conflicting accounts leave open the possibility that Iran could have obtained the ScanEagle by other means and unveiled it now for maximum publicity. Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Iran's capture of an RQ-170 Sentinel drone that was operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency from Afghanistan.
But in contrast with the Sentinel—a high-tech stealth craft used, among other things, to conduct surveillance on the Pakistan compound used by Osama bin Laden before he was killed in a U.S. raid—the ScanEagle employs a lower-tech, lower-cost technologies. More than 1,600 have been sold to governments for defense operations and for civilian applications—including helping commercial fishing vessels locate schools of fish—according to Insitu Inc., the Boeing subsidiary that makes them.
The U.S. military has been using hundreds of ScanEagles since 2004 in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and to monitor pirates in the Horn of Africa, Mr. Salata said, adding that other regional governments also use ScanEagle models. Those used by the U.S. fly in international airspace, he added, except in wartime applications in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. has lost a number of these craft in the waters of the Persian Gulf, though not in the past few months, he said.
The Iranian television footage of the drone showed the craft, elevated on a tripod, against a backdrop of a large poster showing a map of Iran and the Persian Gulf. On the poster was a quote from the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei: "We will trample American under our feet."
"The Revolutionary Guard's navy unit is more prepared than ever," Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, the top commander of IRGC's naval unit, said on Iranian television.
The Revolutionary Guards have targeted U.S. drones at least twice. In early November, Iran fired on and missed a Predator drone flying over the Persian Gulf and said it had entered Iran's airspace. The U.S. said the craft had been over international waters when it was fired upon.
A year ago, Tehran said it had overriden the computers in the U.S. Sentinel operating out of Afghanistan and commanded it to land. The U.S. didn't comment publicly on the loss. U.S. officials at the time said privately that the drone had been in Iranian airspace when its remote pilots lost control of it, blaming the loss on mechanical failure.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck a defiant tone Tuesday during a speech at an industrial complex in the city of Isfahan. He contradicted his earlier comments that international sanctions were hurting Iran's economy, saying that Iran was heroically "riding the wave of sanctions."
"Our enemies should know that our history is 10 times longer than theirs. It's possible that the enemy will take a few steps forward but we will push them back to their own borders," Mr. Ahmadinejad said.
— Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
Write to Farnaz Fassihi at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared December 5, 2012,
on page A10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline:
Iran Says It Captured American Drone, to U.S. Denials.