The Other Drone War: Iran and Its Proxies Utilizing UAVs

Often, the deployment of drones in combat has been associated with modern Western countries. The U.S. “drone war” against al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya has become a common facet to reporting military affairs in the Middle East. However, another Middle Eastern “drone war” has been growing. This war is part of the broader conflict involving Iran, Israel, and the United States, now taking on an unmanned approach -- pitting Iran and its proxies using drone aircraft against their enemies, and also against Western drones.

This front of the Iran vs. Western powers conflict received new attention following the October 6 intrusion of a UAV into Israeli airspace. Coinciding with the 39th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the UAV emerged from somewhere over the Mediterranean (near the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip) and was eventually shot down by the Israel Air Force. While multiple reports stated the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) had “mysterious origins,” most analysts concluded it was an Iranian or Lebanese Hezbollah-run operation. One Israeli analyst told CNN, “We know it originated in Lebanon.” Later, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) confirmed his country’s involvement, saying the drone proved Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system “does not work.” On October 11, Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah claimed full-responsibility, noting in a speech, "The drone managed to arrive in an area close to the Dimona [nuclear] plant".

This would not be the first time Iran or its proxies have utilized UAV technology against Israel. In 2004 -- with Iranian assistance -- Lebanese Hezbollah launched the relatively simple Mirsad I drone into Israel. Flying around Israeli airspace for only a few minutes, the flight was described by regional security analyst Ze’ev Schiff as a “clear-cut case of aggression.” In November 2005, Lebanese Hezbollah launched another UAV into Israel. Due to the small size of Mirsad I UAVs, the Israelis had trouble detecting them. Demonstrating the 2005 UAV flight’s propaganda value, one Hezbollah parliamentarian noted:

The Israeli military missed it. This is a victory not only for Hezbollah, but also for Lebanon as a whole. From weakness, we are creating strength.

Hinting at the drone’s other potential uses, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said, “You can load the Mirsad plane with a quantity of explosive ranging from 40 to 50 kilos and send it to its target.” That is almost exactly what Hezbollah did in 2006. During the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, Lebanese Hezbollah launched a mixture of armed and unarmed drones. In total, four Iranian-supplied UAVs were destroyed by the Israelis.

Six years later, sources told the Lebanese Daily Star that Hezbollah attempted to launch another drone in the Bekaa Valley, only to have the craft burst into flames and crash.

Israel was not alone in dealing with Iranian drone penetration. In February 2009, American fighter jets shot down an Iranian drone which had flown around 80 miles inside Iraqi territory.

Iran has also publicized UAVs they have built. In 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-run Fars News reported that Farnas Aerospace Company was planning on opening a UAV mass-production plant. According to Reuters, Iran has also exported its UAV technology to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.