The CIA's use of surveillance drones over Iran reflects a growing belief within the Obama administration that covert action and carefully choreographed economic pressure may be the only means of coercing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, current and former US officials say.
The administration's shift toward a more confrontational approach suggests deepening pessimism about the prospects for a dialogue with Iran's leaders, the officials say.
The administration's evolving strategy includes expanded use of remote-controlled stealth aircraft, such as the one that came down in Iran last week, as well as other covert efforts targeting Iran's nuclear programme, according to US government officials and Western diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering efforts.
Underscoring the implied military threat, defence secretary Leon E Panetta last week cited contingency plans for "a wide range of military options" to be used against Iran if necessary. He expressed the administration's "determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons," a phrase that suggested an intention to stop the Islamic republic from obtaining the technological building blocks of nuclear arms.
Current and former US officials say the administration is ramping up its covert efforts inside Iran, even as the White House is seeking a thaw in bilateral relations.
The officials say the RQ-170 Sentinel drone that went down over Iran was part of a fleet of secret aircraft that enabled the CIA to carry out dozens of high-altitude surveillance flights deep into Iranian territory without being detected.
US officials have des-cribed the loss of the aircraft in Iran as a setback but not a fatal blow to the stealth drone program.
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)