Sources within the U.S. armed forces have confirmed that an unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle had been sent to monitor Iranian nuclear facilities before crashing in the Middle Eastern nation earlier this month, CNN reported on Thursday (see GSN, Dec. 15).
The formal explanation from Washington and NATO has been that operators -- believed to be with the CIA -- lost contact with the aircraft while it was flying above the border area between Afghanistan and Iran.
Iran recovered the drone and late last week released video footage of what appeared to be an intact RQ-170 Sentinel. While Iran says it used a cyber strike to bring down the vehicle, U.S. officials and lawmakers say a mechanical glitch is likely to have caused the crash.
"It simply fell into their laps," according to a one-time U.S. intelligence official.
"I will say without hesitation that this was not something that anyone had anything to do with, coming down with, other than a technical problem," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). "I will tell you there was a technical problem that was our problem, nobody else's problem. I think there is a lot of PR going on."
Iran's top envoy to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee said the drone "was brought down somewhere in about some 150 miles ... deep into the Iranian territory in the province of Korasan in the northern city of Tabas."
The region has not been identified as a hub for atomic plants, according to issue specialists. Rumors 10 years ago that North Korea was assisting with construction of a uranium enrichment site in the Tabas Desert were not verified, CNN reported.
Uranium mines are operated in the region.
The aircraft might have been heading to atomic facilities identified in the Tehran area and at locations such as Qum and Isfahan, sources said.
Tehran has dismissed the Obama administration's request to return the drone. Experts differ on the likelihood that Iran would be able to exploit the technology carried by the advanced drone, which is believed to include equipment for detecting material that might be emitted by a nuclear facility. There are concerns that it will allow Chinese or Russian specialists to study the vehicle (CNN, Dec. 15).
Iran on Friday said it was prepared to take down other U.S. drones that enter its territory, the Associated Press reported.
"If U.S. spy planes continue their aggression, we won't be idle," Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, who previously served as defense minister, said in an Iranian news report. "We will continue to hunt down their spy planes" (Ali Akbar Dareini, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Dec. 16).
Separately, Russia on Friday said it had confiscated 18 pieces of a radioactive metal that was headed for Iran, AP reported.
Federal Customs Service officers discovered the material when a radiation alarm activated at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. It was not clear when the incident occurred.
The customs agency said it is investigating the matter. The Iranian national carrying the material in luggage was not taken into custody, said agency spokeswoman Kseniya Grebenkina.
Sodium 22, an isotope used in medicine, was a component of the metal.
"There is an extremely slim chance that it could have come from" Russia's nuclear agency, said Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov. Universities, research sites and large medical facilities in the nation have the capacity to produce the isotope, he added.
While Iran has received radioactive isotopes from Russia, sodium 22 has not been among the delivered materials, according to the spokesman (Nataliya Vasilyeva, Associated Press I/Google News, Dec. 16).
"There is no [nuclear] weapons aspect to this (material)," Lars-Erik De Geer of the Swedish Defense Research Institute told Reuters (Reuters, Dec. 16).
Meanwhile, South Korea has hit Iran with another round of nuclear sanctions, AP reported.
Ninety-nine entities and six people are being placed on Seoul's blacklist of those believed to be connected to Tehran's nuclear program. In excess of 120 entities have already been placed on the list.
The actions did not include curbs on purchases of Iranian oil, a measure now being considered by Western nations (Associated Press II/Boston Globe, Dec. 16).