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U.S. officials, analysts differ on whether drone in Iran TV video is real

By the CNN Wire Staff
December 9, 2011 -- Updated 1529 GMT (2329 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. official: "We now have no reason to believe" the drone in the video is a fake
  • Another official questions the intact appearance of the drone after a crash
  • An Iranian general says the drone was downed "with minimum damage"
  • Iran's Foreign Ministry delivers a reprimand of U.S. to Swiss envoy

Tehran (CNN) -- Iranian TV aired images Thursday of what it says is a U.S. stealth drone that went down in Iran last week, an apparently intact RQ-170 drone propped on a pedestal and triumphantly displayed.

"Military experts are well aware how precious the technological information of this drone is," said Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Forces, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

There was disagreement among Pentagon officials about whether the drone in the video is real. Military and intelligence officials were analyzing the Iran television footage.

One U.S. official said right now the U.S. can't be certain it's the real stealth drone, because U.S. personnel don't have access to it. But he added there's no reason to think it's a fake.

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However, a second senior U.S. military official said that a big question is to how the drone could have remained virtually intact given the high altitude it is believed to have crashed from.

Earlier Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman said the video is being examined.

"We've seen the imagery. There are folks that are looking at it," Capt. John Kirby told a news conference.

He and his fellow spokesman, George Little, would not comment further on whether the drone is the one that the U.S. military said went missing. They did say that the missing U.S. drone had not been recovered.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said his initial impression from pictures sent to him by CNN isn't what one would expect to see after a crash. He said he was guessing that the object is a mock-up prepared for a parade, noting a U.S. flag in the picture.

Pike pointed out that the wings in the picture droop down, whereas in most pictures of such a drone the wings are higher than the center, which is good for stability

Bill Sweetman, an aviation analyst, said the craft appears to be the RQ-170 and it looks real to him.

If the drone came down in what he called a flat spin or what is known as a falling leaf departure, the plane would be pretty much intact, but the belly would be badly scraped. He said all of the electronics inside would most likely be in one piece.

Sweetman doubts the Iranians hacked into the system and took control of the aircraft. It is much more likely it crashed by itself since "that's what drones do."

And the condition also suggests it was not shot down but was a system failure. There are no burn marks from a fire, no holes and no outward damage. Sweetman noticed a dent along the leading edge but doesn't know what that necessarily means.

"It's fairly clear here from the pictures that the outer wings have been separated. The question is, did that happen in the accident or (did they take) them off to move the aircraft," Sweatman said.

The CIA and the Pentagon would not comment on the latest development.

Two U.S. officials confirmed to CNN on Tuesday that the missing drone was part of a CIA reconnaissance mission that involved both the intelligence community and military personnel stationed in Afghanistan.

A senior U.S. official with direct access to the assessment about what happened to the unmanned aircraft said it was tasked to fly over western Afghanistan and look for insurgent activity, with no directive either to fly into Iran or spy on Iran from Afghan airspace.

A U.S. satellite quickly pinpointed the downed drone, which apparently sustained significant damage, the senior official said.

Aired by the official Press TV network, the video Thursday showed different angles of the unmanned aircraft. It had been flying over the eastern town of Kashmar when it went down, the network said.

"Recently, our collected intelligence and precise electronic monitoring revealed that this aircraft intended to infiltrate our country's airspace for spying missions," Hajizadeh said.

"After it entered the eastern parts of the country, this aircraft fell into the trap of our armed forces and was downed in Iran with minimum damage."

Hajizadeh said the plane's wingspan "is around 26 meters (85 feet)." It is 4.5 meters (14 feet, 9 inches) long, 1.84 meters (6 feet) tall and "is equipped with highly advanced surveillance, data gathering, electronic communication and radar systems," he said.

Hajizadeh said B-2 and F-35 planes have used the technology found in the aircraft, which is guided via satellite link and land stations in Afghanistan and the United States.

"As far as its platform and coating are concerned, this kind of plane has been designed to evade radar systems and from the viewpoint of technology it is amongst the most recent types of advanced aircraft used by the U.S.," Hajizadeh said.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency and Fars said Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to Iran, who received an official reprimand for the U.S. actions. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran, which doesn't have diplomatic relations with the United States.

Iran demanded U.S. reparations for the act, which it says is "against every international law and regulation, as well as contrary to the region's peace and security," Fars said.

Meanwhile, Iran's U.N. ambassador said in a letter Thursday to the world body that the drone flew 250 kilometers (150 miles) into Iranian territory "to the northern region of the city of Tabas."

The letter from Ambasador Mohammad Khazaee to U.N. Secretary-Genera Ban Ki-moon and the heads of the General Assembly and Security Council did not specify how the drone ended up in the hands of the Iranians, saying only it "faced prompt and forceful action" by the armed forces.

"My government emphasizes that this blatant and unprovoked air violation by the United States government is tantamount to an act of hostility against the Islamic Republic of Iran in clear contravention of international law, in particular, the basic tenets of the United Nations Charter," Khazaee's letter said.

He called for U.N. condemnation of U.S. "acts of aggression," as well as "clear and effective measures to be taken to put an end to these dangerous and unlawful acts in line with the United Nations' responsibilities to maintain international and regional peace and security."

Shirzad Bozorgmehr, Chris Lawrence, Adam Levine, Barbara Starr, Jennifer Rizzo, Tim Lister, Pam Benson and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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