Iran’s developing of a massive arsenal of combat drones has the potential for being a game-changer in the Middle East. This new lethal weapon is not only a threat to Israel, Washington’s strategic ally in the region, but also poses a significant threat to America’s regional interests.
As the U.S. and other world powers engage Iran in Vienna to restore the nuclear agreement, they should put this weapon at the center of negotiations.
To be clear, Iran’s developing of armed drones is nothing new. The regime first started to build them in the mid-1980s, during the war with Iraq. Over the years, either through reverse engineering or its independent efforts, Iran has developed highly advanced operational capabilities in the drone industry.
However, after reaching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with world powers in 2015, Iran has heavily invested in the drone program. The Quds Air Industries, a subset of the Aviation Industries Organization, which operates under the Ministry of Defense, has developed numerous types of kamikaze and reusable combat drones. These include the Ababil-3, Mohajer-6, Shahed-129, Gaza, Saegheh, Fotros, Hemaseh, Karar, Sadegh, Yesir, the Hodhod, Roham, Ya Mahdi, Sarir, Raad 85, Haamaseh, and Hazem-1, most of which are able to reach heights of 45,000 feet, fly for more than 24 hours and beyond 1,500 kilometers (932 miles).
These drones have advanced capabilities in collecting intelligence and carrying out attacks, by launching missiles or engaging in kamikaze operations.
Developing this massive arsenal has given Iran an operational and strategic advantage. Drones are easy to move and operate, require small crews and can be launched from various platforms. They enable Iran to hit its adversaries while maintaining plausible deniability.
Some of the advanced drones have been used to carry out several deadly attacks in recent years. One notable example is the Sept. 14, 2019 strike on two installations in the giant Abqaiq oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia, which temporarily cut off half the oil production in the world’s largest supplier.
Another was the July 29, 2021 attack on the commercial Mercer Street tanker, killing two crew members, one British and one Romanian.
The Iranian regime has also frequently targeted U.S. forces in the region using drones. On Sept. 11, 2021, a drone attack hit the CIA hanger in Erbil International Airport in northern Iraq. On Oct. 20 and Dec. 5, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched several drone attacks on the U.S. al-Tanf military base in Syria near the Iraqi border.
These attacks were described by a Hezbollah-affiliated news site as “a new phase in the confrontation” to force the U.S. out of the Middle East. Earlier this month, on the second anniversary of the assassination of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, two armed fixed-wing suicide drones attempted to attack U.S. troops in Iraq near Baghdad’s international airport.
The writing on the wings of the drones read, “This action is revenge from the Commanders,” a reference to Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, former head of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi militia.
A second attempted drone attack was foiled on Jan. 4, after Iraq’s air defense shot down the armed drones headed towards a U.S. airbase west of Baghdad. On Jan. 7, Saraya Ababil, an Iranian-backed paramilitary group, claimed responsibility for two drone attacks on U.S. positions in the Baghdad airport.
Iran also threatened to target American citizens with a drone strike on U.S. soil. An animated video posted on the website of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office shows a drone strike targeting former President Donald Trump.
More troublesome are the reports indicating that the Iranian regime is equipping its terror proxies, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Shi’ite militias in Syria and Yemeni Houthis with drone capability. According to the Alma Research Center, Unit 340 of the Quds Force has smuggled the technology of the drones to Hezbollah, arming the terror group with an arsenal of approximately 2,000 combat drones, including advanced models, such as the Mohajer, Shahed, and Samed (KAS-04), Karrar and Saegheh. Hezbollah intends to use them for kamikaze attacks on Israeli strategic assets and reconnaissance against IDF forces and bases.
Iran also smuggled technology and the know-how required for drone production into the Gaza Strip, only 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) away from the Dimona nuclear reactor site. In May, Hamas used Iranian-style kamikaze drones packed with 11 pounds of explosives employed as a miniature cruise missile in its war with Israel. The drone, known as Shehab, resembles the HESA Ababil drone made by Iran; it reportedly attempted to attack an Israeli chemical plant in the settlement of Nir Oz.
The same month, an armed Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace from the T-4 base in Syria to attack Israeli territory. On Dec. 24, the IRGC held a military drill to practice an attack on the Dimona site, using kamikaze drone swarms and ballistic missiles.
Similarly, Iran had sent Shahed-136 to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Shahed-136 has a range of some 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) radius, which means it can reach the Israeli port of Eilat. Houthis also use Iranian drones against Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Iran transfers its drones to African countries and Venezuela, not far from the U.S. homeland.
Israel has a growing concern about Iran drones, because the Iranians have developed game-changing ways to overwhelm air-defense systems with them. At the present time, it is not clear whether the Iron Dome can detect Iranian drones. Israel is thus trying to deal with the challenge on the supply side, by hitting drone and advanced-weapons convoys or by striking manufacturing facilities in Syria.
Still, despite Israel’s aggressive campaign to disrupt the Iranian program, intelligence agencies assess that the regime in Tehran is continuing to equip its proxies with attack drones and weapons.
There is an urgent need for an enhanced response to this challenge. The U.S. in October hit the drone program with sanctions by targeting two companies and several individuals involved. It is highly unlikely, however, that sanctions deter the regime from using armed drones in attacks.
World powers engaging Iran over returning to the JCPOA should address the threat by including the drone program in any modified nuclear deal. Compromise on the subject, and even dealing with it in a separate agreement—like that surrounding the ballistic-missile program, which former U.S. President Barack Obama failed to include in the JCPOA—will enable Iran to further expand the program without technically being in violation of the terms of the deal.
The critical problem with a separate agreement is that there will be virtually no supervision on the program and the types of drones that Iran produces in the future. A similar loophole in the JCPOA enabled Iran to build and test numerous long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. bases and those of America’s regional allies.
Lifting sanctions on Iran without addressing this threat will only enable the regime to use massive resources to fund and smuggle drones to its terror proxies in the region, resulting in further anxiety among regional U.S. allies.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.