This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
The recent crash of a U.S. spy drone inside Iran offers a glimpse at the growing secret effort by Washington to curb the nuclear program of its longtime foe, the Associated Press reports.
Iran last week released video footage of what it says is an intact unmanned aerial vehicle shot down within its territory. U.S. officials have said equipment failure was more likely to have caused the crash. Observers have expressed little surprise that the drone would be part of U.S. covert activities against the Middle Eastern state.
Tehran has previously claimed that Washington was behind computer-based strikes against Iran, along with bomb attacks that killed two nuclear scientists and injured another. Washington has countered that Iran has played a hand in the death of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and tried to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
"It's beginning to look like there's a thinly veiled, increasingly violent, global cloak-and-dagger game afoot," American Enterprise Institute military specialist Thomas Donnelly said at a recent event in Washington.
Clandestine activities in the nuclear impasse are "much bigger than people appreciate," said former national security adviser Stephen Hadley. "But the U.S. needs to be using everything it can."
Washington and partner nations believe that Iran's atomic activities, particularly its uranium-enrichment program, are aimed at giving the nation a nuclear-weapon capability. Tehran says its nuclear effort has no weapons component.
The standoff "will only get nastier" if Iran continues to shrug off U.N. calls to halt contested atomic activities, Hadley said. The U.N. Security Council has issued four sanctions resolutions against Iran, which have been bolstered by punitive measures from the United States and other governments.
Iran itself issued a letter of complaint to the United Nations regarding Washington's "provocative and covert" drone operations.
An Iranian lawmaker said specialists had nearly finished collecting information from the drone, which would be used in a civil legal case against the United States, AP reported over the weekend.
Parviz Sorouri, a member of the Iranian government's national security and foreign policy panel, also said the nation could produce its own version of the drone through studying the U.S. aircraft.
Studying the drone technology, which is believed to include systems for watching over nuclear facilities, could help Iran learn how to better mask its atomic sites, analysts told AP.
Iran also said it would hold onto the U.S. aircraft, AP reported on Sunday.
"No one returns the symbol of aggression to the party that sought secret and vital intelligence related to the national security of a country," said Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who also threatened an unspecified "bigger" reaction to the incident.
Meanwhile, Sorouri also warned on Monday that his nation was planning an exercise on shutting off passage through the Strait of Hormuz, Reuters reported.
"Soon we will hold a military maneuver on how to close the Strait of Hormuz," he told the Iranian Students' News Agency. "If the world wants to make the region insecure, we will make the world insecure."
Roughly 33 percent of ship-carried oil made its way through the strait in 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. The United States deploys naval ships to the sector to counter potential threats to shipping vessels.
The Iranian armed forces offered no response to the lawmaker's statement.
Heads of European Union nations on Friday urged the bloc to institute additional punitive measures against Iran before February. Tehran said, though, it did not expect new measures to include oil penalties sought by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Reuters reported.
"Our policy is sustainable supply of oil to Europe.... Iran is a major oil producer and any sanctions on our oil export would harm the global market," Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi said to reporters. "We (would) have no problem to find a replacement for the EU oil market," he added.
Oil money supports 40 percent of the Iranian economy, according to Reuters.
Despite the call from the three European powers, nations such as Greece have worried about the effect of an oil embargo given their current high use of Iranian supplies.
"When they [the Eurpoean Union] have so many differences among themselves then they should know the unity they have is only superficial," according to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
The U.S. House of Representatives this week is also scheduled to consider new punitive measures against Iran, Agence France-Presse reported. One measure would sanction nations and private firms that either have financial stakes in Iran's energy operations, provide the Middle Eastern state with gasoline, or support Iranian efforts to produce biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons or sophisticated conventional weaponry.
Another bill would target countries or companies linked to Iranian, North Korean, or Syrian efforts involving weapons of mass destruction.
Russia is a particular focus of the legislation, which would prohibit "extraordinary payments" related to the International Space Station until the White House formally proves that Moscow is against production of unconventional arms or missiles by the three targeted nations. Proof would also be required that Iran, North Korea, and Syria in the last year have not received any equipment or support for any WMD efforts from Russia's space service.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned on Sunday that a growing nuclear threat from Iran demands the use of widespread sanctions against Tehran, including on the Central Bank of Iran, Reuters reported.
"This regime in Iran, the ayatollahs, they will be not be there I believe in 10 or 15 years. It is against the nature of the Iranian people and what happens all around the world," Barak said. "But if they turn nuclear they might assure another layer of immunity, political immunity for the regime in the same way that Kim Jong Il assured his," Barak said, in reference to North Korea's nuclear-weapon efforts.
There has been increasing speculation that Israel might use armed force to derail Iran's nuclear program. Barak said, though, that there was still "time for urgent, coherent, paralyzing" sanctions against the Iranian oil and financial sectors.
The Obama administration has battled against current U.S. legislative efforts to punish entities that do business with the Iranian central bank, warning that such a move could harm the global economy if not conducted in tandem with Washington's global partners.