TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian state TV broadcast video Thursday of what it said was the high-tech U.S. drone that Tehran says its forces downed earlier this week, and lodged a diplomatic complaint over the violation of its airspace.
The more than two minutes of footage showed Iranian military officials inspecting what state TV identified as the RQ-170 Sentinel drone, and offered the first evidence that Tehran had captured the aircraft. The beige-colored drone appeared intact and undamaged.
The chief of the aerospace division of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Ami Ali Hajizadeh, claimed Iranian forces brought down the surveillance aircraft with an electronic ambush, causing minimum damage to the drone.
“It was downed through a joint operation by the Guards and Iran’s regular army,” he told state television.
Tehran appeared to be using the video footage to score propaganda points, and a banner at the foot of the drone in the video read “The U.S. cannot do a damn thing” — a quotation from Iran’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini. Another banner was printed to look like the American flag, but had skulls instead of stars.
In Washington, Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. military officials and others were studying the imagery but would have no further comment. “We’re just not going to talk about these kinds of missions and these kinds of capabilities,” Kirby said.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the Defense Department would not be saying whether the Iranian images are that of the U.S. drone.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador on Thursday to protest the drone’s “invasion” of Iranian airspace, according to state TV. It said the ministry demanded an explanation and compensation from Washington.
The U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, and Switzerland represents American interests in Iran.
Iran first reported the downing on Sunday but did not say when the incident happened. At the time, the official IRNA news agency said Iran’s armed forces had shot it down — a claim later rejected by U.S. officials who said the drone crashed over the weekend but that there was no indication it had been shot down.
Iranian state radio has said the unmanned aircraft was detected over the eastern town of Kashmar, some 140 miles (225 kilometers) from the border with Afghanistan.
The RQ-170 Sentinel, made by Lockheed Martin, has been used in Afghanistan for years. It gained notoriety earlier this year when officials disclosed that one was used to keep watch Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan as the raid that killed him was taking place.
The aircraft is equipped with stealth technology, but the U.S. Air Force has not made public any specifics about the drone.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, have said they are not sure what the Iranians will be able to glean technologically from what they found. It is unlikely that Iran would be able to recover any surveillance data from the aircraft.
Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” said that while some of the mechanics of the aircraft are well known, some aspects — especially its sensors — would be important to countries like China.
“This is the jewel for them now,” Singer said. “It depends on what was on the plane on this mission, but one sensor it has carried in the past is an AESA radar. This is a very advanced radar that really is a difference maker for our next generation of planes, not just drones, but also manned ones like F-22s and F-35s.”
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified information, have said the drone and other stealth craft like it for years have spied on Iran — including its nuclear program — from a U.S. air base in Afghanistan, and other bases in the region.
Iran is locked in a dispute with the U.S. and its allies over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the accusations, saying its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and that it seeks to generate electricity and produce isotopes to treat medical patients.
Iran confirmed for the first time in 2005 that the U.S. has been flying surveillance drones over its airspace to spy on its military and nuclear facilities.
In January, Tehran said two pilotless spy planes shot down over its airspace were operated by the U.S., and in July, media said Iranian military officials showed Russian experts several U.S. drones reportedly shot down in recent years.
Faced with international sanctions over its disputed nuclear program, Iran has been trying to build up its own military technology.
It unveiled its first domestically built unmanned bomber in 2010, calling the aircraft an “ambassador of death” to Iran’s enemies. Two year earlier, Tehran announced it had built an unmanned aircraft with a range of more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers), far enough to reach Israel.
Both Israel and the United States have not ruled out a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which the West suspects aim to make atomic weapons – a charge Iran denies.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Lolita C. Baldor and Douglas Birch contributed to this report from Washington.