WASHINGTON — The Iranian capture of a high-tech, stealth U.S. drone shines a light on the American spying mission there, but probably doesn't tell Tehran much that it didn't already know, a senior U.S. official said. The RQ-170 Sentinel was providing surveillance over Iran and didn't just accidentally wander away from the Afghanistan border region, as first suggested. The official said Wednesday that the Iranians will no doubt be able to tell where the aircraft flew. A bigger U.S. concern, the official said, was that the Iranians are likely to share or sell whatever they have recovered of the aircraft to the Chinese, Russians or others. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the mission.
Experts and officials acknowledge that there is no self-destruct mechanism on the Sentinels — which are used both by the military and the CIA for classified surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. Iranian state radio reported Wednesday that the drone was deep inside Iran's airspace, flying over an eastern town famous for Persian carpets and saffron when it was detected by Iranian forces over the eastern town of Kashmar, about 140 miles from the Afghan border. The radio report said the craft was downed by Iranian armed forces.
It did not speculate as to why the drone flew over that town. The radio added that Iran will soon broadcast video footage of the downed drone. U.S. officials said that while they have enough information to confirm that Iran does have the wreckage, they said they are not sure what the Iranians will be able to glean technologically from what they found. It is unlikely that Iran would be able to recover any surveillance data from the aircraft.
Iran first reported the downing on Sunday but did not say when the incident happened. At the time, the official IRNA news agency said Iran's armed forces had shot it down — a claim later rejected by U.S. officials who said the drone crashed over the weekend but that there was no indication it had been shot down.
Still, U.S. officials said that the U.S. employs a range of capabilities to gather information about Iran, particularly its nuclear program. As a result, officials said this type of mission is probably no surprise to Tehran and therefore is not seen by the U.S. as a diplomatic tipping point. Meanwhile, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified information, have said the drone and other stealth craft like it have spied on Iran for years from a U.S. air base in Afghanistan, and other bases in the region.
According to these officials, the U.S. built up the air base in Shindand, Afghanistan, with an eye to keeping a long-term presence there to launch surveillance missions and even special operations missions into Iran if deemed necessary in the future. Such continued use would be predicated on a security arrangement with the government of Afghanistan, after U.S. troops draw down, the officials said. At this point, while the U.S. has broad contingency plans to put a small special operations team into Iran if needed in the future, U.S. officials said they believe the president has not sanctioned any such action. Multiple officials said there is little appetite for putting U.S. troops in harm's way inside Iran, such as the Navy SEALs' lightning raid into Pakistan earlier this year to target Osama bin Laden.
The Sentinel drone has been used in Afghanistan for several years. It gained notoriety earlier this year when officials disclosed that one was used to keep watch bin Laden's compound in Pakistan as the raid that killed him was taking place. On Wednesday, Iran's hardline Kayhan daily newspaper quoted an unnamed military expert as saying Iranian forces did not shoot down the drone. The expert, though, said the Iranian military is capable of bringing it down in such a way that the "body of the plane and its parts remain intact."
Another conservative daily, Mellat, said Iran may transfer intelligence from the drone to regional allies Syria and Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group. Iran confirmed for the first time in 2005 that the U.S. has been flying surveillance drones over its airspace to spy on its nuclear and military facilities.
In January, Tehran said two pilotless spy planes shot down over its airspace were operated by the U.S., and in July, media said Iranian military officials showed Russian experts several U.S. drones reportedly shot down in recent years. Faced with international sanctions over its controversial nuclear program, Iran has been trying to build up its own military technology.
It unveiled its first domestically built unmanned bomber in 2010, calling the aircraft an "ambassador of death" to Iran's enemies. Two year earlier, Tehran announced it had built an unmanned aircraft with a range of more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers), far enough to reach Israel. Both Israel and the United States have not ruled out a military option against Iran's nuclear facilities, which the West suspects aim to make atomic weapons — a charge Iran denies.