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Iran Claims to Build Long-Distance Unmanned Aircraft

A top Iranian defense official says Tehran has built an unmanned surveillance aircraft with a range of more than 950 kilometers. The claim, if true, would put the drone within range of Israel.

Iran's Deputy Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi has told the semi-official Fars news agency his country has succeeded in building an unmanned aircraft.

This is not the first time Iran has claimed to have built a drone aircraft, but Iranian officials have never before indicated the range capability of such aircraft.

Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah claimed, several years ago, to possess an unmanned drone, capable of reaching Israel, but photos of the drone proved to be little more than a slightly larger than normal model aircraft.

Iran also showed grainy footage, in 2006, of what it said was an Iranian-built unmanned aircraft, circling the USS Ronald Reagan in the Persian Gulf. A number of military experts said the footage, however, was "faked."

Internationally recognized, London-based security expert Bob Ayers thinks the ability to build a drone is quite "trivial," unless the equipment on board is high-tech.

"Drones are really nothing more than small aircraft and they are usually remote-controlled, some sort of radio control, some can be pre-programmed, they have onboard computer systems. That tends to be the bigger ones. The smaller ones are easier to make. They are easy to control. Radio-controlled model aircraft have been around for 40 years with the hobbyists," said Ayers.

"The thing that makes a drone valuable is the electronics on board. What has it got on? Has it got a camera on it? Is it taking pictures? Are the pictures down-linked? Is it real time? Do they take pictures with a camera, then have to develop the film? So, the drone itself is fundamentally trivial," he added. "It is the payload that makes it either important or unimportant."

Iran expert Ali Nourizadeh of the London-based Center for Arab And Iranian Studies says the Iranian leadership likes to make exaggerated claims to give the impression their country is a superpower.

"Since 1999, I have been gathering all the statements issued by the Iranian Defense Ministry officials, as well as the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Army, about their achievements, and if I believe what they say, then we should say that Iran is the strongest superpower in the world," he said. "I think that every day they come up with the idea of new weapons and then when we dig and search, we found out it is the same missile, they have just changed a little part of it. So therefore, although Iran has achieved in certain areas, you know, some fascinating achievement, but as far as strategic weapons are concerned they are not that much advanced, and the aircraft you are talking about is also modification of some of the aircraft they had."

Iran sent shivers in Western defense circles, several weeks ago, when it launched a domestically-built satellite into space on a multi-stage rocket. That rocket, when adapted for military purposes, could also be used to launch long-range ballistic missiles, capable of hitting Europe and possibly more distant targets.