The Iranian nuclear power plant of Natanz. (Henghameh Fahimi / AFP)
TEHRAN, IRAN — Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said Sunday its forces shot down an Israeli drone as it approached an Iranian nuclear site, recovering major parts of what it described as an advanced aircraft. Israeli officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
The incident comes as Iran negotiates with world powers over its nuclear program and hard-liners press moderate President Hassan Rouhani to demand more concessions before limiting its atomic capabilities. Israel has not ruled out taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if its capability to build an atomic weapon progresses.
The Guards issued a statement Sunday on its website saying its forces fired a missile at the drone as it neared its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) south of the capital, Tehran. The statement did not say when it shot down the drone.
Guards spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif later told Iranian state television that officials believed it to be a “new generation” drone used by Israel.
“Major parts of the devices of the drone are intact and have been received by our friends that can be used for further information,” Sharif said.
Sharif did not say when the aircraft was shot down, but said it was “identified upon arrival in Iranian airspace.” He said authorities allowed it to fly for a short time to determine its destination.
Lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of an influential parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, also told a news website associated with Iran’s armed forces that the “point of departure” for the drone should be determined, suggesting it likely flew in from one of Iran’s neighbors.
Iran’s nuclear program has been the target of espionage and sabotage efforts in the past. In 2010, the so-called Stuxnet virus temporarily disrupted operation of thousands of centrifuges, key components in nuclear fuel production, at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Iran says it and other computer virus attacks are part of a concerted effort by Israel, the U.S. and their allies to undermine its nuclear program through covert operations. Israel has never commented on the allegations but is widely believed to have been involved in the Stuxnet attack.
Since then, Iran has also said that it discovered tiny timed explosives planted on centrifuges but disabled them before they could go off. Authorities now claim the Islamic Republic is immune to cyberattacks.
Meanwhile, world powers and Iran continue to negotiate on a final deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program. A deal struck last November saw some sanctions eased in exchange for Iran limiting its uranium enrichment.
The West fears Iran may be able to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the charges, saying its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at generating electricity and medical research.
Iran has said it captured several American drones that violated the country’s airspace in the past. In 2011, Iran said it captured an advanced CIA spy RQ-170 Sentinel drone and later reverse-engineered it.