WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sent a formal diplomatic request asking Iran to return the radar-evading drone that crashed during a CIA spying mission this month, but U.S. officials say they don't expect Iran to comply.
"We have asked for it back," President Barack Obama said Monday at a news conference in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We'll see how the Iranians respond."
His comments marked the first public confirmation that the RQ-170 Sentinel drone now in Iranian hands is a U.S. aircraft, though U.S. officials had privately acknowledged that in recent days. Iran has claimed it downed the drone, but U.S. officials say it malfunctioned.
Capture of the futuristic-looking unmanned spy plane has provided Tehran with a propaganda windfall. The government announced that it plans to clone and mass produce the bat-winged craft for use against its enemies.
The embarrassing loss of the CIA drone has focused attention on the use of an airbase in western Afghanistan over the past several years to launch aerial surveillance missions against suspected nuclear facilities and other targets in neighboring Iran.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the U.S. request for return of the drone "appropriate," but he acknowledged that Iran's government, which last week lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations and said the U.S. spy plane violated its airspace, was unlikely to send it back.
Officials declined to say how the United States filed the formal request. Washington doesn't have diplomatic relations with Tehran and normally communicates through the Swiss government.
Iranian state media reported Monday that Iranian experts are recovering valuable data from the drone, which appeared relatively intact in photographs released by Iran.
U.S. officials said they don't believe Iran's scientists can reverse engineer the craft's stealth design and skin coating, which help it evade detection on radar. But they expressed concern that Iran may figure out the drone's flight path and thus learn the CIA's surveillance targets inside Iran. U.S. officials also are concerned that Iran could offer the drone to China or other U.S. rivals.