His comments came after "The Washington Post” reported that unmanned U.S. planes, or drones, have been flying over Iran for the past year from U.S. military bases in Iraq looking to monitor any activity at nuclear sites.
The paper wrote that aerial espionage was standard in military preparations for an eventual air attack and was also employed for intimidation purposes.
When asked on 14 February about the newspaper report, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that said he could neither confirm nor deny "matters related to intelligence."
John Pike is the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a U.S.-based independent research organization that focuses on new security challenges.
“Drones could circle their facilities to try to understand which ones are active, they would be able to monitor the facility for an extended period of time, see which buildings people are going in and out of; they’d be also able to fly close to facilities to sniff for a trace of gases that might be given off by uranium processing operations; so I think it’s quite credible that the U.S. would use drones to look for weapons of mass destruction in Iran,” Pike said.
Pike added that the practice is not unprecedented; the United States was known to have flown spy planes over the Soviet Union during the Cold War and there are also reports of Iran conducting drone missions over Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.
However, experts agree that flying surveillance planes over a country’s airspace is a violation of international laws and norms of international conduct under which countries are not allowed to engage in activities endangering the sovereignty, security, and national interests of other countries.
The United Nations Charter states that all UN members must refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of other states.
Dr. Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran University, said: “Unmanned planes or planes with a pilot that enter the airspace of a country violate international laws, and even commercial and passenger planes should enter the airspace of a country based on prior agreements.”
Security expert Pike agreed: “I think Iran would certainly be justified regarding this as being a violation of their airspace and a violation of international law, but this would not be the first time that international law has been violated and it certainly won’t be the last.”
“The Washington Post” has reported that the Iranian government, using the Swiss Embassy to relay the message in the absence of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations, has formally protested the claimed drone flights as illegal.
Professor Bavand said that countries could react in different ways when their airspace is violated.
“[Countries] can issue a warning or if, for example, it’s a plane with a pilot, they can force it to leave the country’s airspace or they can force it to land or they can destroy it [by shooting it down].... [Sometimes] there can be some consideration [about shooting down a plane] and those countries might not act [against such a violation] in order to prevent a crisis; but they can protest the airspace violation to the UN secretary-general.”
Reports of U.S. drones gathering information about Iran’s military sites adds to speculation about a possible U.S. or Israel air attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Washington and Tel Aviv have expressed suspicions that Tehran is secretly developing weapons of mass destruction. Yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom predicted that Iran would have the knowledge to build nuclear weapons within six months.
However the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, whose agency is monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, told several U.S. newspapers on 15 February that there have been no discoveries in the last six months to substantiate claims that Tehran is building a nuclear weapon.
Yesterday, a blast in the southern Iranian city of Dailam caused concern that a missile had been fired at an Iranian nuclear facility. The Iranian nuclear facility of Bushehr is near Dailam.
Any preemptive attacks on Iranian sites would, of course, be a breach of international law.
“Without any doubt [it would be a violation of international laws], just as when Israelis attacked Iraq’s nuclear facilities [in 1981], the Security Council condemned the action in a resolution,” Bavand said.
Iranian officials have warned that any act of aggression against the country will be met with swift retaliation.