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Gulf: How Iran’s drones are changing the balance of power in the Gulf

By Sara Saïdi
Posted on Monday, 23 August 2021 07:23

The strike against the Israeli oil tanker MT Mercer Street that killed two people on 29 July © Karim SAHIB/AFP

Less sophisticated than their Israeli counterparts, Iranian drones are nonetheless easily transportable and operational. They are also a growing threat for the US and their allies in the Gulf.

The new ultra-conservative Iranian president, Ebrahim Raissi, stated shortly after his election in June that he would not meet with American president Joe Biden and that negotiations on the nuclear agreement are stalling. At the same time drone attacks against American positions in Iraq – no less than 40 attacks since the beginning of the year – and in Syria are becoming increasingly frequent.

Even if the Iran denies responsibility, as it did in the aftermath of the strike against the Israeli oil tanker MT Mercer Street which killed two people on 29 July in the Strait of Oman, it is systematically implicated in these attacks by intelligence services. It also regularly unveils new drones that are increasingly more efficient.

Kamikaze drones

Iran’s latest drone named the Gaza was unveiled to the world last May. According to the Iranian authorities, it has a range of 2,000 km and can carry 13 bombs. “Iran has the right industrial capacity to build durable and inexpensive drones. They can be easily transported throughout the Middle East and are easily operational,” explains Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.

Since the 1979 revolution and the war against Iraq, Iran has invested in the development of these flying robots. The first Qods Mohajer was built in the 1980s, followed by the original HESA Ababil in 1986. Today, Iran has many types of military drones, but, according to Heras, the United States and its allies are particularly targeted by copies of the Ababil. “These drones can be remotely controlled or guided by pre-captured GPS coordinates and sent to targets, exploding kamikaze-style,” the analyst explains.

In his book ‘The Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future’, Seth Frantzman argues that Iran may have been inspired by Israeli drones “after two Pioneers were shot down in 1991 during the Iraq war”. More recently, in 2015, adds Frantzman, “Iran had access to the wreckage of the Predator lost in Syria, as well as a ScanEagle and a Reaper, shot down in Yemen.” These aircraft were designed by the US.

Tehran is strengthening its defence capacity against any foreign attack. “This is part of the posture of dissuasion on the borders,” says James Rogers, an expert at the Centre for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. And the Iranians are seeking to increase the surveillance, communication and targeting capabilities of their air weapons.

Asymmetric threat changes Gulf balance of power

But it is not so much the sophistication of these devices that is worrying. Rather, it is their wide distribution in the region, as well as their capacity to threaten American allies from Lebanon to Yemen via Iraq, modifying the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran and Israel have already been challenging each other in the Mediterranean and Red Sea for several years, in what is known as the “maritime shadow war”.

“The United States cannot completely counter the Iranian drone war,” says Heras. “It will be a threat that Washington and its partners will have to learn to live with. The election of Ebrahim Raissi will probably not change the situation (…) The Revolutionary Guard Corps controls this technology and its transfer to Iran’s partners and proxies.”

“Of course, the US still has high-tech drones (…) that are offensively superior to anything else in the region. However, the greatest threat comes from a smaller or lower-tech system that can infiltrate base defences. It is currently very difficult to counter this threat or even deal with it adequately. This has been recognised by a number of US military and generals,” adds Rogers.

Copies and proxies

What makes the situation even more complex and dangerous is the fact that Iran allows non-state actors, such as Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, access to these drones. “It seems that this was the flagship project of General Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, killed by an American drone in Iraq in January 2020): to ensure that this drone system could be passed on to regional non-state actors such as the Houthis,” explains Rogers.

Shiite militias in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine have also used drones with similarities to Iranian-made ones. Supported by the Islamic Republic, Yemeni rebels have also been responsible for several attacks on Saudi territory, notably against Aramco’s oil installations, highlighting the flaws in Riyadh’s anti-aircraft defence.

“The Houthis have developed a longer range version of the Ababil drone, the Samad-3, which can also carry heavier explosives and has more sophisticated guidance. The Samad-3 drones are themselves copied by Iranian proxies in other places, such as Iraq. Drones are a cheap and easy way for Tehran to increase the military capabilities of its partners and proxies,” says Heras.

“The problem with having drones of almost identical design, both in states and non-state actors, is that it is no longer clear who is really behind the strikes. The spread of drones gives the perpetrator a useful opportunity to deny,” he explains.

‘Frankenstein’s monster’

Kirsten Fontenrose, a researcher for the American think tank Atlantic Council, regrets that the sanctions against Iran have not limited the development of this technology. “Tehran can, for example, sell oil to China in exchange for drone parts. Another option is to sell oil for yuan using a mechanism proposed by the Bank of Kunlun, and then buy parts with that yuan,” she writes on the Defense One website. According to her, thanks to 3D printing, Iran could even do without these Chinese imports.

According to many experts, the ideal would be to be able to control the export of this technology and thus prevent the spread to non-state actors. The problem, Rogers points out, is that for the latter, drones are often simply an assembly of parts, “a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, with commercial engines coming from Europe, wiring coming from China, wings coming from commercial drones…”

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