“Iran’s Persistent Use of Drones in its Covert Conflict with Israel” – Analysis

Amid a temporary cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, an Israeli-owned vessel, while in the Indian Ocean, was struck late last week by a Delta Wing Drone. According to an unnamed US defense official, the drone was an Iranian Shahed 136, the same type Tehran provided Moscow with last year to use against Ukraine. This is not the first time the Islamic Republic has employed one-way attack drones against tankers to carry out its shadow war against Israel. The cold logic behind these strikes also means this will not be the last. By using drones, which fly low and slow, versus something like ballistic missiles, which fly high and fast, Tehran is engaging in graduated escalation with unmanned aerial systems that have comparably smaller payloads, in the hopes of forcing Israel to absorb the threat, rather than feel compelled to respond. According to Iranian reports, the Shahed 136 has a range of 2,500 kilometers, weighs about 200 kilograms, can carry a 50-kg. warhead, and can achieve top speeds of 185 kilometers per hour.

These one-way attack drones are colloquially termed “the poor man’s cruise missile,” as their flight-path greatly mirrors cruise missiles, which also fly low and hug the contours of the terrain they traverse. Interestingly, reports suggest these drones continue to be reliant on illicitly procured Western technology. The latest Israeli-linked maritime target of such Iranian drones was the Symi, a Malta-flagged vessel owned by a Singapore-based shipping corporation, Eastern Pacific Shipping, an entity that is ultimately controlled by Israeli businessman Idan Ofer. Iranian drones have previously struck vessels owned or controlled by Ofer and his family. For example, in November 2022, another Shahed 136 drone struck the Pacific Zircon tanker off Oman’s coast. The Liberian-flagged Pacific Zircon was similarly operated by Eastern Pacific Shipping. Additionally, in July 2021, an Iranian Shahed-class drone struck the Mercer Street, operated by the London-based shipping corporation Zodiac Maritime, an entity owned by Ofer’s brother, Eyal Ofer. The strike on the Mercer Street killed two people, a Romanian captain and a British security guard. Prior to this, there were at least four Iran-backed attacks on Israeli-owned vessels in 2021. This history of Iranian attacks against Israeli-linked shipping interests is an important, but understudied vector, of how the Islamic Republic has prosecuted its shadow war against the Jewish state while avoiding an outright confrontation. Despite arraying a ring of fire around Israel through proxies that aid the regime in deniability after attacks – thereby dampening prospects for direct retaliation, the Islamic Republic has increasingly chosen to respond more forcefully to threats it believes it faces from Israel, these allegedly ranging from sabotage, to assassination, to drone attacks. The way Tehran has pulled this off is through cross-domain escalation. This translates to it choosing to drive a crisis or respond to a perceived threat in a different area or geography, or wherever an opportunity to land a blow most readily arises. Over the past decade, examples included attacks on commercial vessels and ports, the use of cyber tools, and the targeting of critical infrastructure. When married with the evergreen terror threat against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, Tehran believes it has found a winning formula to adjudicate conflicts against a conventionally superior adversary. The net effect is that no matter the duration of this, or any prospective ceasefire between Israel and an Iranian proxy, the Islamic Republic has both the capabilities and intent to continue carrying out its fight against the Jewish state by changing the target, tool, or geography. This is something Israeli national security decision-makers can ill afford to ignore as they prioritize the threats they face from Tehran. The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think-tank in Washington, DC. He is the author of Arsenal: Assessing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program.