President Barack Obama on Monday acknowledged a US drone was in Iranian hands for the first time and said the United States has asked Tehran to return the sophisticated spycraft.
"We've asked for it back. We'll see how the Iranians respond," Obama said at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
It was the first open confirmation by the Obama administration that Iran was in possession of the drone, which Tehran says it brought down as the plane was flying over the country's territory.
Obama, however, shed no further light on the plane's mission or why it failed to return to a base in Afghanistan.
"With respect to the drone inside of Iran, I'm not going to comment on intelligence matters that are classified," he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States had made a "formal request" to Tehran to return the drone but expressed doubt it would be returned.
"Given Iran's behavior to date, we do not expect them to comply," Clinton told reporters at a press conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, with whom she discussed Iran.
The bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, designed to evade radar for surveillance flights, was on a CIA mission when it went missing, US officials, speaking anonymously, have said previously.
The episode has handed Iran a propaganda coup and Iranian state television has shown images of a robotic aircraft that experts say resembles the Sentinel.
Iran has vowed to reverse engineer the drone but has given contradictory accounts of how the aircraft went down on December 4. Tehran initially said it shot down the drone but later claimed the Iranian military managed to hack into the plane's flight controls.
US officials have expressed skepticism that Iran has the technological capacity to have brought the plane down through hacking and that it was more likely the drone suffered a malfunction.
Other American drones have flown off-course in the past, including the Fire Scout robotic helicopter, which engineers lost contact with during a flight in Maryland in 2010.
Military commanders at one point considered shooting the helicopter down as it was heading towards the US capital but technicians managed to gain back control over the aircraft.
US officials and analysts also have cast doubt over Iran's ability to replicate the drone -- at least without the help of Russia or China.
"US capabilities are remarkably advanced, and it's unclear that the Iranians have the expertise" to exploit the advanced technology -- including sensors -- in the aircraft, a US official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity said recently.
by Stephen Collinson
(c) 2011 AFP
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