Spy planes that Iran claims to have shot down over its territory were not operated by the US Air Force, a top American general said today.
Air Force Major General Allen Peck also downplayed Pentagon planning for airstrikes on Iran, calling it routine.
Iran’s Farsi-language daily Jomhouri Islami reported on Sunday that Iran had downed an unmanned spy plane flying in its airspace near the border with southern Iraq.
Peck, the deputy commander of US Air Force operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres, said no unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that fly in the region had gone missing.
“All of my UAVs are accounted for,” Peck said. “I know where they all are and none of them are on the ground in Iran.”
It is possible Iran downed a spy drone operated by an intelligence agency, military officials said, or it could have downed a plane flown by a non-coalition military.
Or Iran may have fabricated the incident, the military officials said.
“If people from other countries are flying UAVs or whatever, I can’t really speak to that,” Peck said.
“We haven’t lost any over Iran.”
Asked whether the Air Force operates spy planes over Iran, Peck answered by saying the US Central Command is trying to avoid “provocations” against Tehran in the current confrontational atmosphere over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Peck said the Air Force would be very careful before sending spy craft - especially manned U2 reconnaissance planes based in the United Arab Emirates - on missions over Iran.
“Never say never,” he said. “You’ve got to realize that penetrating their airspace would be a provocative thing.
"We’re not interested right now in doing something that’s perceived as provocative. I don’t want to say it could never happen, but we’re pretty cognisant of where the borders are and the ramifications of violating others’ airspace.”
US intelligence agencies do maintain satellites and other collection assets over and inside Iran, which the US Central Command uses to keep track of developments inside Iran’s “fairly closed society”, Peck said.
He would not specify what those collection assets were.
“We have national capabilities of keeping track of what’s going on in Iran,” he said. “Our focus isn’t strictly on Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re looking at all potential areas of conflict.”
News of the spy plane’s reported downing in Iran came as US media reports over the past week have said the Pentagon is in the midst of planning for airstrikes on dozens of Iranian nuclear development sites.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined to discuss the potential for a US attack on Iran, saying yesterday that America was on a “diplomatic track”.
Even so, Pentagon planning for any contingency with a country considered hostile to the United States is normal, Peck said.
“Clearly the military is required to, and we’d be considered negligent if we didn’t, come up with contingency plans for a variety of circumstances that might arise,” said Peck, dressed in a worn khaki flight suit and drinking hot chocolate with aides in a Dubai hotel.
The Air Force, Peck said, has not been building up forces in the Gulf region to prepare for potential airstrikes on Iran.
Although Iran’s leadership appears on a “collision course” with the West over its nuclear developments, the general said the US Air Force and Navy maintain cordial relations with Iran’s military.
“There really has not been any adjustment in force structure or any posturing,” Peck said. “We’ve got to be very careful what we do doesn’t get misinterpreted, because we don’t want to impact the diplomats’ ability to resolve the current crisis peaceably.”
America has been secretly sending surveillance drones over Iran since 2004 as part of preparations to launch air strikes at Tehran’s nuclear sites, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.
The drones use radar, video, still photography and air filters to detect traces of nuclear activity not accessible to satellites.
Last February, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi said that US surveillance drones had been detected over Iranian nuclear and military sites.
Peck, who is based at al-Udeid Air Base in nearby Qatar, said US intelligence assets are used to “illuminate” nuclear developments in Iran “to find out what their intentions are, so we can help the civilian leadership of our country and the international community forge a way ahead”.