U.S. spy drones keep tabs on Iranians

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has been flying surveillance drones over Iran for nearly a year to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs and detect weaknesses in air defenses, according to three U.S. officials with detailed knowledge of the secret effort.

The small, pilotless planes, penetrating Iranian airspace from U.S. military facilities in Iraq, use radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity to gather information that is not accessible to satellites, the officials said. The aerial espionage is standard in military preparations for an eventual air attack and is also employed as a tool for intimidation.

The Iranian government, using Swiss channels in the absence of diplomatic relations with Washington, formally protested the illegal incursions, according to Iranian, European and U.S. officials.

A U.S. official acknowledged that drones were being used but said the Iranian complaint focused on aircraft overflights by the Pentagon. The United States, the official said, replied with a denial that manned U.S. aircraft had crossed Iran’s borders. The drones were first spotted by dozens of Iranians and set off a national newspaper frenzy in late December over whether the country was being visited by UFOs.

The maneuvers have been conducted as the Bush administration sharpens its anti-Iran rhetoric and the U.S. intelligence community searches for information to support President Bush’s claim that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Bush’s senior advisers, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said last week that a U.S. attack on Iran is not imminent but that the option remains available.

In late December, Iranians living along the Caspian Sea and on the Iraq border began reporting sightings of red flashes in the sky, streaks of green and blue and low, racing lights that disappeared moments after being spotted. The Iranian space agency was called in to investigate, astronomy experts were consulted and an agreement was quickly signed with Russian officials eager to learn more about the phenomena.

But the mystery was laid to rest by Iranian air force commanders, some of whom were trained more than 25 years ago in the United States and are familiar with U.S. tactics. They identified the drones early last month, a senior Iranian official said, and Iran’s National Security Council decided not to engage the pilotless aircraft.

“The United States must have forgotten that they trained half our guys,” an Iranian official said. After a briefing by their air force three weeks ago, Iran’s national security officials ordered their forces not to turn on the radar or come into contact with the drones in any way.

“Our decision was: Don’t engage,” the Iranian official said. Leaving the radar off deprives U.S. forces of vital information about the country’s air defense system, but it also makes it harder for Iran to tell if an attack is under way.

The drones are one of several tools being used to gather information on Iran’s nuclear programs and its military capabilities, U.S. officials said. The United States believes Iran is using its nuclear energy program to conceal an effort to manufacture nuclear weapons, but so far no one has found definitive evidence to substantiate that.

Iran is engaged in diplomacy with France, Britain and Germany aimed at ending a 21/2-year crisis over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions that began when Iranian defectors exposed a large uranium enrichment facility in August 2002.

U.S. officials confirmed that the drones were deployed along Iran’s northern and western borders, first in April 2004, and again in December and January. A former U.S. official with direct knowledge of earlier phases of the operation said the U.S. intelligence community began using Iraq as a base to spy on Iran shortly after taking Baghdad in early April 2003. Drones have been flown over Iran since then, the former official said, but the missions became more frequent last year.

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