Iran may suspect special lizards of spying, but the use of animals for intelligence purposes dates back well over 100 years and involves not just reptiles but cats, dogs, birds and even sea life.
Carrier pigeons were used in ancient times for relaying messages. But interest in the use of animals has changed with the development of microelectronics and miniaturization that allowed small listening devices to be put on birds and even small mammals.
More recently, technology has been catching up with dog-like robots for defense use as well as hummingbird-size drones tested by the Pentagon. The Air Force also has released video of “bugbots” or “birdbots” that could be used for surveillance and military applications, including potential swarm attacks.
Iran has a long history of suspecting animals for spying, particularly accusing the West of trying to gather information about its nuclear activities.
Back in 2008, two “spy pigeons” were suspected of being used to gather intelligence about Iran’s uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, reported Iran’s reformist paper Etemad Melli. It said one of the birds was captured not far from the heavily bunkered underground facility and had metal rings, strings and other suspicious features attached.
‘Spy’ squirrels busted
Iran’s media also reported the case of 14 “spy” squirrels that were busted in 2007. The account at the time by the daily Resalat claimed the rodents were released along its border by Western intelligence and fitted with espionage equipment, including navigation tracking, bugging devices and a camera.
As for lizards spying, the stories about the reptiles surfaced Tuesday when Hassan Firuzabadi, a senior military advisor to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the state-run Iranian Labour News Agency about how lizards and perhaps salamanders were used by Western countries to “find out where we had uranium mines and where we were involved in atomic activities.”
According to Firuzabadi, “lizard-like animal skins attract nuclear waves.” He claimed Iranian authorities stumbled on suspicious cases of outsiders with reptiles in their possession and concluded it was part of a pattern of espionage conducted by environmentalists.
“Probably the reason the Iranians are paranoid and jumpy is because people have used fake rocks outside Iranian nuclear facilities to monitor what they’re up to,” said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based international security think tank.
Lewis, a former U.S. diplomat with experience in high technology and intelligence, said the rocks reportedly would self-destruct when they were picked up. The rocks were found by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on patrol near the country’s underground nuclear enrichment facility in Fordow and reported first in 2012 by U.K.’s Sunday Times newspaper.
Similarly, Iran-backed militant groups also have accused Israel of using animals for espionage.
Dolphin with arrows
In 2015, Gaza Strip’s Hamas security officials reportedly captured a dolphin equipped with “video cameras” off the coast, according to the Palestinian paper al-Quds. The Iran-backed group claimed the dolphin was sent by Israel and also fitted with a weapon that could fire arrows at humans.
There also was a 2016 case of a “spy vulture” captured in the southern Lebanon town of Bint Jbeil. Local media in Lebanon called it a “spy” bird because it reportedly carried transmitter equipment, but Israel claimed it was from a nature reserve and asked for it back. Parts of southern Lebanon are controlled by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist group.
There have also been claims over the years from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Sudan of the Israelis using eagles, vultures or other birds for espionage. An Egyptian official in 2010 claimed sharks controlled by Israel’s Mossad were responsible for attacks on tourists in the Red Sea to hurt the local tourism economy.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the R&D arm of the Pentagon, has tested controlling sharks, and the U.S. Navy does training with dolphins and sea lions. There’s also been research over the decades with beluga whales.
The use of the dolphins by the U.S. military focuses primarily around locating underwater mines and helping with rescues at sea. The dolphins, which are trained at a base in San Diego, were used by the U.S. military during the first and second Gulf wars to help clear mines.
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