Bloomberg News

Obama Says U.S. Has Asked for Iran to Return Downed Drone

December 14, 2011

(Updates with comment from Clinton in ninth paragraph.)

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said the U.S. has asked Iran to return a drone aircraft that U.S. controllers lost contact with on Dec. 4.

At a White House news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama said he wouldn’t comment directly on the loss of the pilot-less spy plane.

“We have asked for it back,” he said. “We’ll see how the Iranians respond.”

Iran said it is studying the craft and is close to accessing information stored in it.

Three U.S. defense officials said last week the plane the Iranians displayed on television on Dec. 8 appears to be the Lockheed Martin Corp. RQ-170 that was lost four days earlier. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have declined to comment on the drone.

Parviz Sarvari, head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said Iran is “in the final steps of breaking into the aircraft’s secret code.”

“The findings will be used to support our accusations against the U.S.,” Sarvari said in comments published on the website of the state-run Al Alam news channel.

Obama didn’t offer details about how his administration asked Iran to return the drone. The U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran and is usually represented in that country by Swiss diplomats.

No Response Expected

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking of the request in a press conference today, said that “given Iran’s behavior to date, we do not expect them to comply” with the request. She said the U.S. formally submitted the request “as we would in any situation with any country in the world.”

Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said he wouldn’t provide details on how the U.S. communicated with Iran. “I’m not going to get into intelligence matters” or the diplomatic process, Toner said.

The U.S. officials said the greatest concern is that the Iranians will give Russian or Chinese scientists access to the aircraft, which is designed to be virtually invisible to radar and carries advanced communications and surveillance gear.

Studying it may give two technologically sophisticated potential adversaries insight into the unmanned spy plane’s stealth technology, flight controls, communications gear, video equipment and self-destruct, holding-pattern or return-to-base mechanisms, officials said.

Secret Program

The officials spoke on Dec. 9 on condition of anonymity because the RQ-170 is part of a Secret Compartmented Intelligence (SCI) program, a classification higher than Top Secret, and because the investigation into the loss of the drone is also classified.

The officials said that for three years the U.S. has been flying two types of unmanned surveillance missions over Iran and along the Afghanistan-Iran border from a former Soviet airbase in Shindand in western Afghanistan’s Herat province.

In addition to monitoring construction and other activity at suspected Iranian nuclear facilities, the officials said, the CIA has been using drones to monitor cross-border traffic and Iranian support for insurgents.

The U.S. says the Persian Gulf country’s nuclear program is a cover for developing atomic weapons. Iran, which is under four sets of United Nations sanctions and further U.S. and European Union measures, rejects the claim and says the program is purely civilian.

--With assistance from Ladane Nasseri in Tehran and John Walcott and Hans Nichols in Washington. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Bob Drummond

To contact the reporters on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at; Nicole Gaouette in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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