Revealed — America’s Spying Mission Along Iran’s ‘Black Line’
U.S. Air Force surveillance tracks close to the coast
The Pentagon secretly snooped on Iran along a “black line” near the country’s Persian Gulf coastline. With both nations starting to implement a landmark nuclear deal, the Pentagon will likely keep this close and constant watch on the Islamic Republic.
In 2013, the U.S. Air Force performed at least one surveillance mission in international waters up and down most of Iran’s southern coastline, according to an annual Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency history War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Censors redacted the entire content of the sections related to Iran, but left in a grainy map showing the “ISR operation along the black line.”
ISR is a Pentagon acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions – spying in normal parlance. The line charts a course that appears to stay in international waters and deftly avoids the outlying Iranian islands of Greater Tunb and Abu Musa.
While the Air Force was involved in this particular operation, we don’t know if spy planes or ships were on the scene and what sort of intelligence they were scooping up at the time. But whatever the specific points of interest might have been, the mission was no doubt related to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, at least in part.
For more than a decade at least, Washington has regularly monitored Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. While the Iranian government denied the accusations, American officials believed – and many still believe – that the country was secretly developing an atomic arsenal.
While Iran’s interest in nuclear energy dates back to the Shah, Washington and its allies became especially concerned with the program after the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered undeclared nuclear activities in 2003. A signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Tehran insists it is enriching nuclear material for power generation — not atomic bombs.
What followed were a series of American, European and U.N. sanctions designed to force Iran to give up its nuclear plans. In turn, Iran threatened various actions, including closing the Strait of Hormuz to international shipping. The strait is a vital conduit for Middle Eastern oil shipments.
In July, Iran has now pledged to abide by the terms of a deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after lengthy negotiations with representatives from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – known as the P5+1 – and the European Union. The JCPOA trims the size of Tehran’s uranium stockpile, limits the purity of the remaining material and curtails future enrichment activities – all designed to keep the country from getting the highly-enriched uranium it would need to build a weapon.
Separately, a number of U.N. Security Council Resolutions impose sanctions and limits on Iran or Iranian companies or individuals over work on ballistic missiles – which could carry nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction. Washington and its friends accused Tehran of breaching those rules when it launched a branch new ballistic missile, called Emad, in October.
With concerns about these programs, the Pentagon has been hard at work keeping tabs on Iran along with the rest of the intelligence community. So, the “black line” mission is hardly surprising, but it is indicative of the military’s interest in Iran. Drones were a likely tool in the 2013 mission. The Pentagon has already been forced to acknowledge extensively using the unmanned spooks to gather information on Iran.
In December 2011, a bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone crashed near the Iran-Pakistan border. While the Pentagon has released little information about these super-secret pilotless planes, the Sentinels might be able to take high resolution pictures, film video footage or eavesdrop on radio chatter.
In 2010, the flying branch effectively surrounded Iran with the stealthy RQ-170s flying from bases in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, according to another Air Force historical review we received via FOIA. The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada owns all of the 20 or so Sentinels that remain on active duty.
Two years later, the Air Force paired the Sentinels with B-2 stealth bombers for a test of the massive Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP. Boeing’s 30,000-pound MOP is designed to burrow hundreds of feet into the ground before exploding to take out buried facilities and bunkers, like the ones Iran has been building to hide its nuclear sites and missile launchers.
Of course, for this sort of surveillance from international airspace, the flying branch may have turned to less advanced drones. The older and far less secretive MQ-1 Predator has been flying missions in the Persian Gulf – possibly to make sure Iran isn’t preparing to blockade Hormuz – for at least three years.
The Pentagon admitted to the spying after Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot jets tried to shoot down one of the slow-flying Predators on Nov. 1, 2012. “The MQ-1 was not hit and returned to its base safely,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters after the incident.
A little more than four months later, Tehran’s aging F-4 Phantoms challenged another Predator in international airspace over the Gulf. In that instance, the drone’s escorts — F-22 stealth fighters apparently added after the earlier confrontation – warned the Iranian pilots to keep their distance.
These are not the only spies in the region. On two separate occasions in 2011, one of the flying branch’s RC-135S Cobra Balls collected intelligence on Iran flying from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, another annual history we obtained through FOIA explained.
Derived from the Boeing 707 airliner, the Cobra Ball planes look for ballistic missile launches like Tehran’s Emad test. Able to hoover up communications signals, similarly sized RC-135V/W Rivet Joints frequently fly missions from Al Udeid on a regular basis, too.
On top of the aerial spies, the Air Force partners with the U.S. Navy to spy from the sea. The sailing branch’s quasi-civilian Military Sealift Command currently has two spy ships, the USNS Invincible and USNS Howard O. Lorenzen.
Invincible and Lorenzen are more commonly known by the nicknames of the radars they carry, Gray Star and Cobra King, respectively. Able to operate in both the S- and X-bands, these sensors can find missiles in flight – or even satellites in space – and then track them as they head toward their targets.
As of 2012, Gray Star “typically deployed” to the Middle East, according to another history the Air Force released through FOIA. Spotted in the Persian Gulf the same year, the ship’s most likely target was Iran’s missile program.
Unfortunately, all of these radars, cameras and other gear might not be able to peer into Iran’s expanding network of underground military facilities. Tehran has worked steadily to bury sensitive sites and equipment specifically to guard against prying eyes and powerful weapons like the MOP.
In October, the Iranian Broadcasting Corporation showed off one of these subterranean bunkers holding missiles owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force on national television. Tehran has at least three underground and otherwise “hardened” sites on or near its Persian Gulf coasts, according to an analysis by Galen Wright at Offiziere.
Along with the rest of Washington’s intelligence community, organizations such as the Defense Intelligence Agency’s obscure Underground Facility Analysis Center would have to be looking for ways to keep watch on Iran’s buried infrastructure. This sort of intelligence will be key in making sure Iran plays by the rules of their deal with Washington.
“This deal is not built on trust – it’s built on verification,” Pres. Barack Obama said on July 14. “If Iran tries to divert raw materials to covert facilities, inspectors will be able to access any suspicious locations.”
But regardless, the Pentagon will probably keep snooping on the Iranians “along the black line” and elsewhere … just in case.