The Islamic Republic of Iran, long held to be the world’s preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, is rapidly expanding its drone capabilities.
A recent study reveals how Iran has been increasing the scale and scope of its drone attacks. The report by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, warned that since 2022, “Iranian-backed militias have escalated their attacks, predominantly using drones, against U.S. service members and regional partners.”
Iranian drone attacks, JINSA analyst Ari Cicurel noted, “present the greatest immediate threat to U.S. service members, partners and interests in the Middle East.” Indeed, Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have attacked key regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. One Jan. 17 attack targeted an industrial area in Abu Dhabi, killing three innocent people and wounding six others. The strike was launched by the Houthis, a Yemen-based proxy of the Islamic Republic.
The Houthis are but one of many proxies that Tehran has trained and equipped. Previously designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the Trump administration, the Biden administration delisted the Houthis shortly after taking office. Some say that the move was designed to appease Iran, others that it was intended to facilitate aid flows to famine-hit Yemen. Regardless, the Biden administration has made it a priority to reach an agreement over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Appeasement seems likely.
The problem is that Iran has a long history of using proxy groups, among them the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to exert its influence. This strategy provides Iran with maximum reward and minimum risk. Tehran’s growing use of drone warfare does the same while giving the country and its minions the pretense of plausible deniability.
Seth Frantzman, the author of Drone Wars and the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, has noted that drones provide Iran with the ability to “do a lot with very little.” While Iran’s drones are not as sophisticated as those being used by the U.S. or Israel, they don’t need to be.
Many of the drones have been used in “kamikaze” style strikes, such as a September 2019 strike which disabled Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility. That attack knocked 5.7 million barrels — 60% of the Kingdom’s daily oil production — out of use. In a single day, the world’s oil price went up 15%. Iran has also used suicide drones to attack U.S. forces and bases, most recently in several attacks this January, in Iraq and Syria.
The trend is clear.
According to JINSA’s Iran Projectile Tracker, drones account for 67% of the weapons that Iranian partners used in attacks during 2021 and 2022, compared to just 19% between 2018-2020. That is a significant increase. And it is not a coincidence.
Iran is taking advantage of the Biden administration’s eagerness for a nuclear deal. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been unwilling to impose clear consequences in response to drone attacks. But this much seems clear: Iran’s growing drone capabilities will have to be dealt with sooner or later — regardless of any deal reached in Vienna.
The writer is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.
Originally published in Washington Examiner.