By RICK GLADSTONE
Published: December 8, 2011Seizing on its capture of a downed C.I.A. stealth drone as an intelligence and propaganda windfall, Iran displayed the first images of the aircraft on state television Thursday and lodged an official diplomatic protest over the incursion.
The 2.5-minute video clip of the remote-control surveillance aircraft was the first visual evidence to emerge that Iran had possession of the drone since Sunday, when Iran claimed that its military had downed the aircraft. American officials have since confirmed that controllers of a pilotless drone aircraft, based in neighboring Afghanistan, had lost contact with it.
The drone shown on Iran television appeared to be in remarkably good condition inconsistent with an uncontrolled landing. It was displayed on a platform clearly constructed for propaganda purposes, with photos of Iran’s revolutionary ayatollahs on the wall behind it and a desecrated version of the American flag, with skulls instead of stars, underneath its left wing.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, senior officials said the video images from Iran were being analyzed by specialists within the military and from other parts of the government — presumably the intelligence community. The officials declined to comment on whether the video in fact showed the American drone that had been lost.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a consulting firm, said in response to a query from CNN about the images that the aircraft did not resemble what he would have expected to see in a crash, fueling suspicion it may have been a mock-up. Other aviation experts said the images appeared to be authentic.
Broadcast of the footage coincided with Iran’s announcement that it had formally protested what it called the violation of Iranian airspace by the drone. Because Iran and the United States have no direct diplomatic relations, Iran made its complaint by summoning the ambassador from Switzerland, which manages American interests in Iran.
American officials have identified the missing drone as an RQ-170 Sentinel, an unarmed bat-winged aircraft used by the C.I.A. that can linger undetected for hours at 50,000 feet, far higher than most aircraft can fly, with cameras and other sensor equipment to monitor what is on the ground. An RQ-170 was used to gather intelligence for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistan safe house earlier this year.
The loss of an RQ-170 in Iran is a potentially significant intelligence blow for the United States, which has been stepping up efforts to monitor suspected Iranian nuclear sites.
The United Nations issued a report Nov. 8 that Iran may be actively working on a nuclear weapon and a missile delivery system. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and has denounced the U.N. report as a fabricated pretext for new Western economic sanctions and possible military intervention by the United States and its allies.
Iran’s leaders, who have been increasingly isolated diplomatically over the nuclear issue, point to the drone as evidence of hostile American intentions toward Iran.
On state television, the video clip was narrated by a voice saying that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and army had “collaborated to shoot down the plane.” The unidentified narrator gave the drone’s dimensions as 26 meters (about 85 feet) from wingtip to wingtip, 4.5 meters (15 feet) from nose to tail and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) in height. The narrator also said the aircraft had “electronic surveillance systems and various radars” and was “a very advanced piece of technology.”
In what appeared to be an attempt to explain the aircraft’s undamaged appearance, a Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, identified as Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said in the video that the drone “was detected by Iranian radars as soon as it entered Iranian airspace and was brought down by Iran’s military systems with the minimum damage possible.”
American military experts have cast doubt on Iran's claims precisely because of the drone's ability to avoid radar detection. "It would be almost impossible for Iran to shoot down an RQ-170 because it is stealthy, therefore, the Iranian air defenses can't see it," Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., told the Military Times newspaper. "Partly for the same reason, it is exceedingly unlikely that they used a cyber attack to bring down the aircraft."
Nonetheless, it remains unclear how American controllers lost contact with the missing drone and how it appeared to have ended up, seemingly intact, on the ground in Iran. American officials have not specified where it was lost. Iran’s state-run press has said that it landed near the town of Kashmar, about 140 miles from the Afghanistan border.
Iran's semiofficial Mehr News agency reported Thursday that officials from Russia and China had asked Iran for permission to inspect the captured drone.
RQ-170 flights were among the most secret of the C.I.A.'s intelligence gathering efforts in Iran, according to American experts and officials who have been briefed about them.