Is U.S. Flying Drones Over Iran?

The Washington Post reported it on the front page of yesterday’s paper:

U.S. Uses Drones to Probe Iran For Arms

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 by 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 incursions as illegal, according to Iranian, European and U.S. officials, all speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

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 Iranian civilians and set off a national newspaper frenzy in late December over whether the country was being visited by UFOs. The surveillance has 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 assertion that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

One would certainly hope our government is taking whatever steps it can to gather intelligence on this issue.

Nuclear Programs in N. Korea, Iran Heighten US Concerns (VOA)

Speaking on CNN’s Late Edition program, Senator [Jay Rockefeller (D,VA) said getting the latest intelligence information on Iran’s nuclear ambitions is crucial. “Everything we can do to gather intelligence information, no matter who is doing it among our intelligence and military agencies, is for the betterment, because we are stretched so thin,” added Senator Rockefeller. “We need all the eyes on the ground that we can possibly get.”

The Administration is sending mixed signals, however.

Conflicting word on U.S. drones over Iran (CNN)

U.S. sources have given conflicting signals about the veracity of a Washington Post report that said America has been using unmanned flights for the past year to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear capability. Three senior U.S. military officials disputed the article Sunday, but two well-placed U.S. government sources confirmed it, saying that the overflights have indeed been taking place. The newspaper — citing three U.S. officials — reported that Washington has been using drones to look for evidence of nuclear weapons programs and to “detect weaknesses in air defenses.” Neither the CIA nor the Pentagon would comment Sunday on the apparent discrepancy.

Pentagon Denies Flying Drones Over Iran (Fox)

Senior Defense Department officials said Monday they have no knowledge of any U.S. drone flights over Iran, and U.S. intelligence officials would not comment on any such flights.
But a defense official at the Pentagon told FOX News that “the story has a lot of people scratching their heads in this building. “We’re not the only ones who fly those things,” the official said.

Indeed not. So, apparently, the Defense Department is not, in fact, flying drones over Iran to get information on its nuclear program. The CIA, however, is.

Update (1437): DC Loser points out below that the Israelis fly drones, too. Good point.

See also U.S. Conducting Secret Missions Inside Iran? (Jan. 16)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Look to the West of Iran. Israelis have been flying UAVs longer than most people. They would need very good targeting intelligence if they are to try another Osirak mission.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True ’nuff. For some reason, that alternative didn’t occur to me.

  3. BigFire says:

    Somebody else in one of the milblog speculate that we’re flying these drones to pick up the radar freqency of Iranian Air Defenses. Those things will be the first thing to go.

  4. McGehee says:

    I wouldn’t think we’d need to know the frequency of air defense radars. When the balloon goes up (assuming it does), those things will be fairly hard to miss (in more ways than one).

  5. AnjinSan says:

    While Bush has chased phantom WMD’s in Iraq, a real threat has grown next door. Can our horribly overextended forces deal with it if necessary?

  6. LJD says:

    …Stay tuned until next week when Anjin unveils the next doomsday scenario…..

  7. DC Loser says:


    I happen to know a few things about Integrated Air Defense Systems and how they work. You DO need to know about radars because we don’t know what “signatures” their actual tracking and target engagement radars will use in their “war reserve” mode. If you want to kill air defense radars you need to know as much as you can about their radar waveforms, pulse repetition frequencies, etc., so you have an exact target signature to attack and not waste your expensive HARM missiles on decoys, of which there will be plenty. Military air defense radars never put our their war reserve frequencies or PRFs except for the real thing, so the trick is to get them to turn on their radars, thinking there’s a real threat out there, and then capturing the signature for your own use. This is an art form of its own. We used to fly ferret missions around the USSR just to pick up those little nuggest about Soviet air defense radars, and it was not without risk as we lost more than a few planes to them when we pushed our luck.

  8. AnjinSan says:

    What “doomsday scenario” are you referring to L? The publlisher of this blog has expressed similar concerns. Is he a whiny liberal parroting DNC talking points?

    Really L, are you as stupid as you sound?

  9. AnjinSan says:


    Guys like Mcghee seem to think wars are vidio games fought by some kind of magic, not by men who go out and get killed and maimed, even American troops with superior equipment.

    Well when the “baloon goes up” you can bet ol’ Mc will pick up his pom pom’s and cheer while other men are off doing the dying.

  10. LJD says:

    First Assholio-San, your post, beating to death the tired-old WMD rhetoric, once again has nothing to do with the post about drones over Iran.

    Second, your posts serve as enough evidence for all to read, that you are truly stupid and childish.

    Lastly, who are you to continually criticize others, under the assumption that they will sit on the sidelines and watch the carnage?

    I am a veteran, AND in the Army Reserve. James is a veteran. You have no idea that McGehee is not a veteran. Since you have not made the claim, and through your continuing disrepect, I’ll wager you ARE NOT a veteran. (Oh, but you have a friend who says….) Whatever.

    Quit being such a whiney bitch.

  11. Out_There says:

    Iran, Russia to study UFOs
    Scientific probe amid rash of sightings in Eastern Hemisphere

    News of the UFO study comes as skywatching mania strikes Iran.

    This week, the Associated Press reported Tehran’s air force was ordered to shoot down any unknown or suspicious flying objects in its airspace amid state-media reports of sightings of flying objects near Iran’s nuclear installations.

    “Flights of unknown objects in the country’s airspace have increased in recent weeks… [they] have been seen over Bushehr and Isfahan provinces,” the Resalat daily reported. Nuclear facilities are located in both provinces.

    “We have arranged plans to defend nuclear facilities from any threat,” air force General Karim Ghavami told the paper. “Iran’s air force is watchful and prepared to carry out its responsibilities.”

    Resalat also reported “shining objects” in the sky near Natanz, where Iran’s uranium-enrichment plant is situated. One of those objects is said to have exploded, prompting “panic in the region.”