TEHRAN, Iran – A senior Iranian military official claimed Tuesday that Iranian-made surveillance drones have made dozens of apparently undetected flights into Israeli airspace from Lebanon in recent years to probe air defenses and collect reconnaissance data. An Israeli official rejected the account.
The Iranian official declined to give further details on the purported missions or the capabilities of the drones, including whether they were similar to the unmanned aircraft launched last week by Lebanon's Hezbollah and downed by Israeli warplanes. It also was impossible to independently verify the claims from the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The Iranian assertions appear to be part of the Islamic Republic's widening strategy to boast about military advances — including warships and longer-range drones — that Tehran says could reorder the balance of power in the region as the West and its allies boost pressure over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran's leaders also seek to portray Israel as vulnerable to Tehran and its proxies.
But an Israeli security official rejected the Iranian claims, saying last week's interception of a drone was the first time such an infiltration had occurred. He said Israel spotted the unmanned aircraft well before it entered Israeli airspace, determined it was not "dangerous" and then shot it down over uninhabited desert according to plan. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an Israeli military investigation is still under way.
The Iranian official claimed drones made by the Islamic Republic have made "dozens of flights over Israel" since the summer 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. He said Israeli defenses had been unable to detect the surveillance craft.
"The one that was shot down last week was not the first and will not be the last to fly into Israeli airspace," the official said.
Iran has often used its military moves to send messages to Israel and the U.S., which has key bases in Gulf Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Tehran last year sent warships into the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Last month, Iranian military leaders gave details of a new long-range drone and tested fired four anti-ship missiles just before U.S.-led naval drills in the Gulf.
At the time, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, also warned that U.S. bases in the Gulf could face retaliatory strikes if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear sites.
On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Rahmin Mehmanparast described Iran's military developments, including drones and missiles capable of reaching Israel, as a safeguard against a possible Israeli attack on nuclear sites.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu last month urged the international community to set a "red line" on Iran's uranium enrichment, which the West and its allies fear could lead to the development of atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear efforts are only for energy and research.
"Basically, the possibility of a war breaking out increases when countries don't have the might to defend themselves. But when countries are powerful ... the possibility of aggression decreases," Mehmanparast told reporters.
A member of the Iranian parliament, Abbas Ali Mansouri, said the drone's flight also showed Hezbollah's growing battlefield capabilities as Tehran's main client militia. Hezbollah could take an even higher profile for Iran if Syrian rebels oust Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus, another critical ally for the Islamic Republic.
"It's crucial that Hezbollah is able to gather remarkable intelligence from inside Israel," he said.
At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosnor called Assad, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "trio of terror."
The Hezbollah drone flight took place a month after Iran unveiled a new long-range unmanned aircraft, which has been described by military officials as a key strategic addition to Iran's military capabilities with the ability to carry out reconnaissance missions or be armed with "bombs and missiles."
The Shahed-129, or Witness-129, has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) that can stay aloft for 24 hours, Iranian officials say.
But it's unclear whether the new drone contains any elements of an U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone that went down in eastern Iran in December. Iran said it has recovered data from the American unmanned aircraft and claimed it was building its own replica.
Iran frequently makes announcements about its strides in military technology, but it is virtually impossible to independently determine the actual capabilities or combat worthiness of the weapons Iran is producing.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.