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The Latest from Iran (9 December): The Return of the Hidden Drone

2122 GMT: Arrests Watch. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reports that trade union activist, Ebrahim Madadi, was re-arrested today after being released just last Thursday:

ITF general secretary David Cockroft added: “We don’t yet know if this arrest is a bureacratic error or an attempt to punish Ebrahim – but either way it’s an unacceptable infringement on his rights and liberty. Like the continuing imprisonment of the increasingly ill Reza Shahabi it is an injustice that is crying out to be righted."

2010 GMT: Latest on the explosion on November 28 in or near Esfahan. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has put out a report claiming that there is no evidence that the blast occurred at the Esfahan nuclear-facility, but that an adjacent area was razed:

The Times reported that the blast occurred at the Esfahan nuclear site and that it has seen satellite imagery that showed “billowing smoke and destruction.” The Times also cites “Israeli intelligence officials” as claiming that the blast was “no accident.” ISIS has acquired DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the Esfahan nuclear site taken on December 3, 2011 and December 5, 2011. There does not appear to be any visible evidence of an explosion, such as building damage or debris, on the grounds of the known nuclear facilities or at the tunnel facility directly north of the Uranium Conversion Facility and Zirconium Production Plant at the Esfahan site (see figure 1).

It is still unclear where the reported blast occurred in Esfahan and whether it occurred anywhere near the nuclear facility. ISIS has identified a facility near the Esfahan nuclear site that underwent a significant transformation recently. The facility is approximately 400 meters away from the edge of a perimeter fence that surrounds the Esfahan nuclear site (see figure 2). An August 27, 2011 satellite image shows that the facility consisted of a ramp leading underground with several buildings along the surface (see figure 3). In a December 5, 2011 satellite image, the buildings are gone, heavy equipment can be seen around the site and there is evidence of bulldozing activity (see figure 4). These buildings were present on the site for at least 15 years (see figure 5). It is unclear how and why the buildings are no longer present at the site. It is also unclear whether this transformation is related to the November 28th, 2011 blast reported to have been heard throughout Esfahan.

ISIS has learned that this underground facility was originally a salt mine dating back to at least the 1980s, and that it has more recently been used for storage. It is unclear what Iran stored in this underground facility. The Times article quoted a “military intelligence source” saying the blast “caused damage to the facilities in Isfahan, particularly to the elements we believe were involved in storage of raw materials.”

1905 GMT: Dave Siavashi takes over the live-blog.

The Drone Fallout. Scott Peterson writes a piece for The Christian Science Monitor titled, Downed US drone: How Iran caught the 'beast', in which he quotes U.S. government officials' concerns over the drone being in Iran's possession, and talks about how it may have been taken down.

Nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" after it was first spotted in 2009 on an airport runway in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the drone was used to monitor Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, undetected, before the raid to kill the Al Qaeda leader.

The Iranian video shows Hajizadeh and another Guard officer examining the craft with its radar-evading curves and wingspan which resembles the larger B-2 stealth bomber. It was placed on a platform with banners hiding the undercarriage and landing gear. The banners – fixed to either wing with clear packing tape – read: "The US can't mess with us," and "We'll crush America underfoot."

It was not clear how Iran acquired the drone intact. Some US experts dismiss the possibility that Iran could hack and then takeover the drone's controls, as Iran claims. And yet similar disruptions have proven possible in other battlefields, notably with the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and drones from Israel.

"Those jamming capabilities exist, and a lot of them are not as new as we would like to imagine," says former US Navy electronics warfare officer Densmore. "Anything that has a sensor, that takes communications links – as does the RQ-170, which has two, one for the satellite, and the other is line-of-sight with the ground control station – all it takes is disrupting that," says Densmore.

Often flying at 50,000-foot altitude, the RQ-170 would have had a hard landing, some say. And yet the Iranian video shows little visible damage, except that wings appear to have been reattached, and there was a small dent on the front edge of the left wing.

A senior US military source "with intimate knowledge of the Sentinel drone" was paraphrased by Fox News days ago as saying that the lost craft was "presumed to be intact since it is programmed to fly level and find a place to land, rather than crashing."

"This is a big prize in terms of technology," the source told Fox.

1600 GMT: Drone Watch. Although nothing of significance has come out of Washington today on the crashed US drone, some notable details in this account in National Journal:

U.S officials tell National Journal that they lost contact with the drone on Nov. 29, U.S. time, and that it was not clear initially if Iran knew it had crashed. After the link was breached and unable to be restored, the Air Force unit that flies the Sentinels immediately sent a bulletin to the National Military Command Center --- a "pinnacle," designating an incident of potentially national significance.

President Obama was briefed Wednesday morning [30 November]. Other U.S. intelligence assets, possibly including an imaging satellite, were diverted to the search.

Initially, the U.S. considered infiltrating a small recovery element from the Joint Special Operations Command....The military also planned to destroy the downed plane by missile. But both missions were foiled when Iranian troops found the scene of the crash, which has not been disclosed.

1530 GMT: Tehran Friday Prayer Update. Hojatoleslam Kazem Siddiqi led the faithful and --- no surprise --- he was very happy about the claimed downing of the American drone, a “hunter falcon”, which “is one of the most advanced US espionage and military weapons".

Siddiqi also condemned the violence that killed Ashura mourners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan: “The blood of these innocents is on the hands of and such atrocities are the work of the advocates of human rights who are responsible for all assassinations and massacres.”

Most interesting, however, might be Siddiqi's finessing of the British question. While he praised Parliament's decision to downgrade ties with London as "brave and wise" gift to the nation, he did not --- at least in the summary of Press TV --- endorse the attack on the British Embassy.

1420 GMT: The Missing American. Earlier today we reported that Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared on Iran's Kish Island in 2007, has re-surfaced in a video and photographs sent to his family (see 0915 GMT).

Now the Levinson family has made a video appeal to the captors --- "We don't know how else to communicate with us" --- including the footage of Robert Levinson from November 2010.

1220 GMT: Activist Watch. An open statement by 235 activists and academics has condemned the attack on British Embassy compound and demanded an immediate halt to Iran’s nuclear programme:

We strongly warn against and condemn every effort in creating a climate conducive to the outbreak of international conflict, thereby considering it our duty to stop the regime’s crisis-building efforts and to help the will of the people to prevail. The only effective way of ending the domestic and foreign crisis is to reassign the decision making power to the people, by preparing a suitable atmosphere for their election through the participation of all liberal, democratic and political groups united by a national pride to uphold the dignity of Iran.

0919 GMT: The House Arrests. On the second anniversary of the Ashura clashes, Khadijeh Mousavi Khameneh, has spoken of a meeting with her brother, detained opposition figure Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Khameneh said Mousavi, surrounded by security guards, emphasised, "Our path is the just one."

Khameneh also spoke of the slaying of her son, shot during the opposition protests on Ashura in December 2009: “I am thankful to God that one of my sons was martyred while defending his country during the Iran-Iraq war and the other was martyred while protesting the fraud in theelection.” She said she had no hope in the regime to secure justice, as judiciary authorities already knew who killed her son but had done nothing.

0915 GMT: A Missing American. Associated Press reports that former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared while visiting Iran's Kish Island, has been seen in a video and a series of photographs sent to his family over the past year.

Levinson's family claims he was in Iran as a private detective, investigating cigarette smuggling.

0900 GMT: Drone Watch. A couple of ripples from Washington, despite the lack of official comment....

One official told CBS News of "high confidence" that the US drone shown on Iranian TV is genuine, while Bloomberg reports, "Two U.S. officials with knowledge of the RQ-170 program said that some details, including the seams on the drone’s fuselage, its access ports and its unusual air intake, appear to confirm that it’s genuine."

Meanwhile, EA readers have pulled out a 2005 Washington Post article which establishes that the US began drone surveillance of Iran in 2004:

The small, pilotless planes, penetrating Iranian airspace from U.S. military facilities in Iraq, use radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity to gather information that is not accessible by satellites, the officials said. The aerial espionage is standard in military preparations for an eventual air attack and is also employed as a tool for intimidation.

The Iranian government, using Swiss channels in the absence of diplomatic relations with Washington, formally protested the incursions as illegal, according to Iranian, European and U.S. officials, all speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

A U.S. official acknowledged that drones were being used but said the Iranian complaint focused on aircraft overflights by the Pentagon. The United States, the official said, replied with a denial that manned U.S. aircraft had crossed Iran's borders. The drones were first spotted by dozens of Iranian civilians and set off a national newspaper frenzy in late December over whether the country was being visited by UFOs.

0720 GMT: We begin this morning with an analysis beyond Thursday's display by Iran of their apparent prize, "The Drone Appears --- Now for the Politics...."

So far, that politics appears to be of an Islamic Republic, after an 11-day silence, seizing the initiative while the Obama Administration tries to figure out what to do. Having leaked loudly and often in recent days --- albeit with little sense of co-ordination --- the American officials have shut up vocal shop. The Washington Post, deprived of its recent status as channel for those officials, falls back on a summary report by its Tehran correspondent, and The New York Times tucks the story into a corner of its website.

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