- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 4, 2012

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran claimed Tuesday it had taken another prize in a growing showdown with Washington over drone surveillance, displaying a purported U.S. unmanned aircraft it said was captured intact. The U.S. Navy, however, said none of its drones in the region was missing.

The conflicting accounts could put pressure on both sides for more details on U.S. reconnaissance and Iranian countermeasures.

They also point to other questions, including how Iran could manage to snatch the Boeing-designed ScanEagle drone without noticeable damage to its light-weight, carbon-fiber body or whether the aircraft could be from another Gulf country that deploys the ScanEagles.

There is even the possibility the drone is authentic but was plucked from the sea after a past crash and unveiled for maximum effect amid escalating tensions over U.S. reconnaissance missions — including a Predator drone coming under fire from Iranian warplanes last month.

But unlike the larger Predator, which can carry weapons and sophisticated surveillance systems, the much smaller ScanEagle collects mostly photographic and video images using equipment with little intelligence value, experts said. One called the craft a “large seagull” with cameras.

** FILE ** This photo released on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claims to show the chief of the aerospace division of the Guard, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh (left), listening to an unidentified colonel as he points to a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone that Tehran said its forces had downed earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Sepahnews)
** FILE ** This photo released on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, by ... more >

Monitoring of Gulf air and sea traffic is considered of high importance for the U.S. military. Iran has taken steps to boost its naval and drone capabilities, unsettling Washington’s Gulf allies. Iran also has threatened in the past to try to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz — the route for one-fifth of the world’s oil — in retaliation for Western sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program.

“We had warned American officials not to violate our airspace. We had formally protested such actions and had announced that we protect our borders,” state TV quoted Foreign Minister Ali Abkar Salehi as saying.

Washington denies it has crossed into Iranian airspace, but Iran‘s definition of its jurisdiction could be far broader. State-run Press TV said any surveillance of Iran was considered “a violation of territory.”

Asked about Iran‘s assertion that it had captured a U.S. drone, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “We have no evidence that the Iranian claims are true.”

Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said no Navy drones are missing in the Middle East.

“The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air vehicles operating in the Middle East region,” Cmdr. Salata said. “Our operations in the Gulf are confined to internationally recognized waters and airspace.”

He noted that some ScanEagles operated by the Navy “have been lost into the water” over the years, but there is no “record of that occurring most recently.”

Other countries in the region, including the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, also have ScanEagle drones in their fleets. The aircraft used by other militaries but not among Iran‘s close allies.

The Iranian announcement did not give details on the time or location of the claimed drone capture.

It’s certain, however, to be portrayed by Tehran as another bold challenge to U.S. reconnaissance efforts in the region.

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