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Iran crash drone 'on spying mission for CIA'

A drone that crashed inside Iran was one of a fleet of stealth aircraft that have spied on Iran for years from a US air base in Afghanistan, US sources said.

They say the CIA stealth-version of the RQ-170 unmanned craft, which crashed at the weekend, was also used to survey Osama bin Laden's compound before the raid in Pakistan in May.

Tehran claimed to have shot down the drone that violated its airspace.

The official Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted an unnamed military official as saying "Iranian armed forces are fully ready to counter any aggression". The report said the "slightly damaged" RQ-170 Sentinel spy plane was now in Iranian hands. A US official said the US had "absolutely no indication" the drone was shot down.

According to sources, the US has built up the air base Shindad, Afghanistan, with an eye to keeping a long-term presence there to launch surveillance missions and even special operations missions into Iran if deemed necessary.

The officials, who spoke anonymously to discuss classified information, say that while no specific mission into Iran has been authorised, the military has contingency plans for such clandestine missions.

The US is reported to be running covert operations in Iran funded by hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned from other programmes, and run by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. They involve support for the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups as well as other dissident organisations.

The Iranians have complained for a long time that bomb attacks in its territory are being organised by US and British forces in Iraq, a charge both countries have denied.

Speaking about Iran at last month’s Republican foreign policy debate US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for a military strike against Iran's refineries and an increase in covert operations.

The former House speaker said that the US could break Iran within a year by "cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran and then, frankly, sabotaging the only refinery they have."

Mr Gingrich said the US should employ “maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable.”

The crashed drone incident comes just days after mobs stormed the British embassy in Tehran. That incident led to the expulsion of Iranian diplomatic staff from London as relations between the two nations hit a new low

Iran's Foreign Ministry blamed students for the attack which involved hundreds of protesters. The British Government's position is that there must have been "some degree of regime consent" in the incidents.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said most of the attackers were members of the Basij militia group, which is supported by the Iranian government. The British embassy staff have all been evacuated from Tehran. Germany and France both recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.

The deteriorating relations between Britain and Iran appeared to take a new turn on Sunday when a bomb exploded outside the UK embassy in Bahrain..

Last month, Iran claimed it arrested 12 'agents' with links to the CIA and Israel's Mossad spy agency.

Officials have given no further details to back up the report. But it could signal stepped-up probes into suspected clandestine cells after a devastating November 12 blast at a military site that killed at least 21 people, including General Hasan Tehrani Moghaddam, who was in charge of the country's missile program.

Iran has called the explosion an accident, but that hasn't squelched widespread speculation of possible sabotage to set back Iran's missile program.

Iran has already pointed its finger at alleged Israel and US involvement in the slayings last year of at least two scientists involved in nuclear research.

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