August 4, 2022

IntelBrief: Iranian Drones Empower Hezbollah and Other Allies

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Bottom Line up Front

  • Iran is equipping its regional allies with sophisticated armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – drones – to help them project power on Tehran’s behalf against shared adversaries.
  • In June and July, Lebanese Hezbollah used Iran-supplied aerial surveillance drones to signal its opposition to Israel’s development of offshore natural gas fields in disputed waters.
  • Houthi drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) contributed to the decision by the two Gulf states to back a ceasefire in Yemen.
  • Iran is selling combat capable drones to several buyers and has begun producing some of its advanced models in Tajikistan.

On July 2, Lebanese Hezbollah – an avowed opponent of Israel – flew three Iran-made unarmed drones toward the Karish offshore gas field, located in disputed waters between Israel and Lebanon. Israeli defense officials claimed that one of the drones was shot down by an Israeli Air Force F-16, and two others were intercepted by ship-launched surface-to-air missiles. The officials added that, on June 29, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had downed another Hezbollah drone that was over Lebanese waters but perceived as a potential threat to Israeli assets. Israel’s Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, explicitly cited Iran for providing the systems, saying, “Hezbollah used UAVs made in Iran in their operation against the Karish...It should be said that Hezbollah carries out missions for Iran, and its weapons are weapons made in Iran whether it is manufactured there, or the knowledge acquired by them.” After the interceptions, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel against extracting gas from the Karish gas field – a natural gas reservoir located in the Eastern Mediterranean – before Lebanon “retains its rights” to the site. Nasrallah went on to add, pointedly, “All land and sea targets of Israel are in the range of Hezbollah missiles.”

Hezbollah’s use of drones came amid reports of progress in U.S.-brokered talks to resolve the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, including a potential solution in which Lebanon might withdraw its claim to any part of the Karish field waters in exchange for territorial concessions in other areas. Hezbollah’s drone sorties appeared to signal its opposition to any Lebanese concessions on Karish. More broadly, Hezbollah’s leadership sought to assert that the party – backed up by the ample supplies of weaponry it receives from Tehran – remains a leading decision-making power in the country. Hezbollah’s saber-rattling helps to galvanize those in Lebanon who argue that the party should be disarmed in order to prevent it from independently provoking a war that would adversely affect the security and economic state of the entire Lebanese population.

Hezbollah’s decision to use Iran-supplied drones to challenge Israel may have been influenced by the success that the Iran-backed Houthis have had in developing leverage over Saudi Arabia and the UAE through drone strikes in the Yemen conflict. In early 2022, the Houthis conducted several significant drone strikes on targets in Saudi Arabia and facilities near Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE. The use of drones against Saudi Arabia represented an evolution of the threat posed by the Houthis, who had previously relied on Iran-supplied ballistic missiles to strike the Kingdom. The drone strikes against the UAE represented an even more significant departure, given the distance between Yemen and targets in the UAE and the considerable political fallout triggered by the attack. The strikes, which killed three persons, shook Emirati confidence in its deterrent capabilities, even though some of the drones were intercepted. UAE leaders also cited a lack of U.S. retaliation for the attacks to publicly question the U.S. willingness and ability to protect the Emirates from further Iran-backed attacks. remains unclear if such concerns shaped UAE’s diplomacy in Russia despite strong U.S. pressure to support Ukraine in the UN Security Council. The Houthi drone attacks undoubtedly contributed to the decision by both Gulf states to back a truce in Yemen that began April 2 and has been since extended.

In Iraq, Tehran-supplied drones have enabled Iran’s allies to influence political outcomes. In November 2021, one month after national elections in which pro-Iranian candidates underperformed, Iran-backed militias struck the home of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi with an Iran-supplied explosives-laden drone. The attack caused structural damage and injured several security guards at the location but did not harm the Prime Minister. Yet, the brazen attack demonstrated the determination of the militia groups and their backers in Tehran to oust Kadhimi during the process of forming a government. As of early August, Iran-backed groups appear poised to form a government with pro-Iranian leaders in the top leadership positions.

Iranian leaders cite the effective use of Iran’s unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – drones - by its allies, as well as by Iran itself, to market the systems abroad. Drone sales can help Iran earn revenue at a time when its economy remains under significant sanctions pressure. In the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran in July, U.S. officials stated that they are monitoring the potential for Iran to supply some of its most sophisticated combat drones to Russia, as Moscow seeks to replenish and enhance an arsenal depleted by its war against Ukraine. In late 2021, as Ethiopian forces battled rebels based in Tigray Province, an armed Iran-made Mohajer-6 drone was identified by journalists on an Ethiopian airbase. In May 2022, Iran inaugurated a factory to produce sophisticated armed drones in neighboring Tajikistan, a Persian-speaking Central Asian state and Russian ally. It is not clear whether the Tajikistan-based plant would constitute a source for Iranian UAS supplied to Moscow. Iran has also sold one of its most advanced systems, the Mohajer-2, to Sudan and Venezuela. Venezuela cooperates with Tehran to mitigate the effect of U.S. sanctions on both Tehran and Caracas and has taken steps to develop its own domestic UAS program. Whether Iran-made UAS evolve into a major arms export industry for Iran, it is certain that Iran will continue to supply its closest regional allies with these systems, which have proven effective in Tehran’s drive to project power throughout the region. The prospect of nonstate armed groups, in particular terrorist groups, has been a concern for several years and there was some speculation of a UN Security Council resolution before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other international actors such as the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum have given more attention to the potential use of drones by terrorist groups, and it may yet prove a topic on which there is some international consensus despite the fractious geopolitical environment in the Council currently.