Iran's Surveillance Drones Over Iraq Make U.S. Military Wary

As Iran helps Iraqi government forces fight rebels pushing through Iraq, the use of unarmed Iranian drones has U.S. officials on edge, as analyst Anthony Cordesman explains to NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Iran has pledged it's support to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in its battle to push back Sunni-led ISIS fighters. This puts the U.S. and Iran on the same side. But American officials say Iran's efforts include sending drones to conduct surveillance. The drones are unarmed, but the military is concerned about their development. Joining us is Anthony Cordesman, co-author of "Iran's Military Forces And Warfighting Capabilities." He is an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Cordesman, welcome.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Thank you. Pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: The fact that Iran has drones is obviously not new. But is there some new concern that their level of sophistication has somehow taken a great leap forward?

CORDESMAN: It's not a matter of great leaps as much as a steady improvement in capability and a wide range of different types. They have not simply gone for intelligence or reconnaissance drones. They also have drones that are armed, although they haven't used them in Iraq. They're also extending these developments so they can be used to target, for example, anti-ship missiles or other systems.

WERTHEIMER: Now, how concerned is the U.S. military?

CORDESMAN: This is a significant shift in Iranian influence. It's competing with the United States for leverage, for influence. And realize that although it's not as sophisticated as ours, it has certain advantages over us. Iran doesn't have to conduct these missions at anything like the ranges we do. It has much better human intelligence on many aspects of Iraq than we can collect. And that makes them a serious rival, in some ways, to the U.S.

WERTHEIMER: Now Iran is known for making a great many claims, some of which turned out not to be true. Do we think they really are capable of fielding armed drones, of doing what you suggested - going after system - defense systems or aggressive systems that the United States might launch?

CORDESMAN: I don't think they're capable of going up against really sophisticated U.S. capabilities. There's always the risk of a surprise attack. And you can't really cover all of the airspace efficiently. A really low-flying, armed drone is a very difficult to detect even if you have airborne warning and control systems. The real problem, I think, more than anything else with this is Iran's involved in the direct strategic competition with the United States for influence over Iraq. It has different objectives than the United States. It want an Iraq which is Shiite-dominated and tied to Iran. We want just about the opposite. And what they're learning from this kind of operation, they can certainly apply operationally if they should ever move against Kuwait or targets in the southern gulf.

WERTHEIMER: Anthony Cordesman is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. Thank you very much for this.

CORDESMAN: A pleasure. Thank you.

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