How Iranian drones went into action from Yemen to Ukraine to Israel

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Iranian-made Karrar drones are displayed next to a banner reading in Persian "Death to Israel" during an inauguration ceremony in Tehran. (Iranian Army office photo handout/AFP)
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Iranian army officials inspecting Iranian homemade Karrar drones displayed during an inauguration ceremony in Tehran in December 2023. (Iran Army handout/AFP)
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Iran Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani (2nd-R) and military chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi (R) taking part in the unveiling ceremony of UAVs at an undisclosed location in Iran. (Iran Army handout/AFP)
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Updated 15 April 2024

How Iranian drones went into action from Yemen to Ukraine to Israel

  • Country has come a long way since first building surveillance drones during the Iran-Iraq War
  • Attack on Israel showed UAVs deployed en masse are vulnerable to sophisticated air defense systems

LONDON: In July 2018, a senior Iranian official made an announcement that raised eyebrows around the Middle East.

The Islamic Republic, said Manouchehr Manteqi, head of the Headquarters for Development of Knowledge-Based Aviation and Aeronautics Technology and Industry, was now capable of producing drones self-sufficiently, without reliance on foreign suppliers or outside technical know-how.

International sanctions restricting imports of vital technology had effectively crippled Iran’s ability to develop sophisticated conventional military aircraft.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (C) and Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani (R) attend an unveiling ceremony of the new drone "Mohajer 10" in Tehran on August 22, 2023. (Iranian Presidency photo handout/AFP)

But now, said Manteqi, “designing and building drone parts for special needs (is) done by Iranian knowledge-based companies.”

In developing its own drone technology, Iran had found a way to build up its military capabilities regardless of sanctions.

Iran had already come a long way in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, having first embarked on the creation of surveillance drones during the Iran-Iraq War.

Speaking in September 2016, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hossein Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, credited the tactical demands of the eight-year conflict as having been “pivotal in the production of modern science and technology for future use.”

This handout picture provided by the Iranian Army on May 28, 2022, shows Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi (R), Iran commander-in-chief, and Major General Mohammad Bagheri, armed forces chief of staff, visiting an underground drone base in an unknown location in Iran. (Handout via AFP)

This, he said, had led to the development of “Iranian-manufactured long-range drones (that) can target terrorists’ positions from a great distance and with a surface of one meter square.”

Iran’s first UAV was the Ababil, a low-tech surveillance drone built in the 1980s by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Co. It first flew in 1985 and was quickly joined by the Mohajer, developed by the Quds Aviation Industry Co.

Although initially both of these drones were fairly primitive, over the years both platforms have been steadily developed and have become far more sophisticated.

According to a report in state newspaper Tehran Times, the current Ababil-5, unveiled on Iran Army Day in April 2022, has a range of about 480 km and can carry up to six smart bombs or missiles.

But the Mohajer 10, launched last year on Aug. 22, appears to be an even more capable, hi-tech UAV, closely resembling America’s MQ-9 Reaper in both looks and capabilities.

Iranian drone "Mohajer 10" is displayed Iran's defense industry achievements exhibition on August 23, 2023 in Tehran. (AFP)

Armed with several missiles and able to remain aloft for 24 hours at an altitude of up to 7 km, it has a claimed range of 2,000 km. If true, this means it is capable of hitting targets almost anywhere in any country in the Middle East.

This appeared to be confirmed in July 2022, when Javad Karimi Qodousi, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s state news agency IRNA that “Iran’s strategy in building drones is to maintain the security of the country's surrounding environment up to a depth of 2,000 kilometers.”

He added: “According to the declared policy of the Leader of the Revolution, any person, group or country who stands up against the Zionist regime, the Islamic Republic will support him with all its might, and the Islamic Republic can provide them with knowledge in the field of drones.”

By 2021, following a rash of attacks in the region, it was clear that Iranian drone technology was in the hands of non-state actors and militias throughout the Middle East.

An Iran-made drone carries a flag of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement above Aaramta bordering Israel on May 21, 2023. Hezbollah simulated cross-border raids into Israel in a show of its military might, using live ammunition and an attack drone. (AFP/File)

Speaking during a visit to Iraq in May 2021, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said the Iranian drone program “has innovated with sophisticated, indigenously produced drones, which it supplies to regional allies.”

This “broad diffusion of Iranian drone technologies makes it almost impossible to tell who conducted a lethal drone strike in the region, and thus who should be held responsible and accountable.”

This, he added, “is only going to get more difficult.”

As it has raced to supply proxies and allies throughout the region and the wider world with these weapons, Iran has developed a second, cheaper class of UAV — the so-called “loitering munition,” or suicide drone.

Variations of these weapons, relatively cheap to produce but capable of carrying a significant explosive payload over hundreds of kilometers, have been produced in large numbers by the IRGC-linked Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center.

In September 2019, the Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for an attack by 25 drones and other missiles on Saudi Aramco oil sites at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Afterward, the Kingdom’s Defense Ministry displayed wreckage that revealed delta-winged Shahed 136 drones were among the weapons that had been fired at the Kingdom.

The Houthis have claimed responsibility for other attacks by Iranian-made drones. In 2020, another Saudi oil facility was hit, at Jazan near the Yemen border; the following year, four drones targeted a civilian airport at Abha in southern Saudi Arabia, setting an aircraft on fire; and in January 2022 drones struck two targets in Abu Dhabi — at the international airport and an oil storage facility, where three workers were killed.

A picture taken on June 19, 2018 in Abu Dhabi shows the wreckage of a drone used by Yemen's Houthi militia in battles against the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The coalition was assembled in 2014 to help restore the UN-recognized Yemeni government that was ousted by the Iran-backed Houthis. (AFP)

In addition to supplying non-state actors with its drones, Iran is also developing a lucrative export market for the technology.

In November 2022, analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy concluded that Iran “may be outsourcing kamikaze drone production to Venezuela,” a country sanctioned by the US in part because of its ties with Tehran, and in July 2023, Forbes reported that Bolivia had also expressed interest in acquiring Iranian drone technology.

Iran is not alone in developing markets for such weapons in South America. In December 2022, military intelligence and analysis organization Janes reported that Argentina had signed a contract with the Israeli Ministry of Defense to buy man-portable anti-personnel and anti-tank loitering munitions, produced by Israeli arms company Uvision.

Only four days ago, it was reported that Iranian-made armed drones have been used by the Sudanese army to turn the tide of conflict in the country’s civil war and halt the progress of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

TV grab showing a UAV made in Venezuel, with help from Iran, China and Russia in 2012. Iran is thought to be outsourcing UAV production to Venezuela. (VTA handout via AFP)

According to Reuters, Sudan’s acting Foreign Minister Ali Sadeq denied his country had obtained any weapons from Iran. But the news agency cited “six Iranian sources, regional officials and diplomats,” who confirmed that Sudan’s military “had acquired Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the past few months.”

Iran’s interest in Sudan is strategic, according to an unnamed Western diplomat quoted by Reuters: “They now have a staging post on the Red Sea and on the African side.”

But Iran’s most significant state customer for its deadly drone technology to date is Russia.

In September 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expelled Iranian diplomats from the country after several downed drones were found to have been made in Iran.

“We have a number of these downed Iranian drones, and these have been sold to Russia to kill our people and are being used against civilian infrastructure and peaceful civilians,” Zelensky told Arab News at the time.

A local resident sits outside a building destroyed by Iranian-made drones after a Russian airstrike on Bila Tserkva, southwest of Kyiv, on October 5, 2022. (AFP/File)

Since then, drone use on both sides in the conflict has escalated, with Russia procuring many of its weapons and surveillance systems from Iran, in violation of UN resolutions.

At a meeting in New York on Friday the UK’s deputy political coordinator told the UN Security Council that “Russia has procured thousands of Iranian Shahed drones and has used them in a campaign against Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure, which is intended to beat Ukraine into submission by depriving its civilians of power and heat.”

But although Iran has successfully exported its drones, and drone technology, to several countries and non-state actors, its own use of the weapons has not been particularly auspicious.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

As initially developed, drones were intended first for surveillance, and then as armed platforms for tactical use against single targets.

It is not known what Iran hoped to achieve by unleashing a swarm of 170 drones at once against Israel on Saturday night, in its first openly direct attack against the country. But all the reportedly failed attack has done is demonstrate that slow-moving drones deployed en masse in a full-frontal assault are extremely vulnerable to sophisticated air defense systems.

This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky as Israeli air defenses intercept an Iranian drone. (AFPTV/AFP)

The vast majority of the drones, and the 30 cruise and 120 ballistic missiles fired at Israel in retaliation for the Israeli airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1, were shot down, either intercepted by American warships and aircraft or downed by Israel’s multi-layered anti-missile systems.

Drone warfare through the years

The word “drone” used to describe an unmanned aerial vehicle was first coined during the Second World War, when the British converted a Tiger Moth biplane to operate as an unmanned, radio-controlled target for anti-aircraft gunnery training. Codenamed Queen Bee, between 1933 and 1943, hundreds were built. Purpose-built drones as we know them today first took to the skies over Vietnam in the 1960s in the shape of the Ryan Aeronautical Model 147 Lightning Bug. Radio-controlled, the jet-powered aircraft was launched from under-wing pylons fitted to converted C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. After its reconnaissance mission was over, the Lightning Bug parachuted itself back to Earth, where it could be recovered by a helicopter. It was Israel that developed what is considered to be the world’s first modern military surveillance drone, the propellor-driven Mastiff, which first flew in 1973. Made by Tadiran Electronic Industries, it could be launched from a runway and remain airborne for up to seven hours, feeding back live video.

• • • • • •

The Mastiff was acquired by the US military, which led to a collaboration between AAI, a US aerospace company, and the government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries. The result was the more sophisticated AAI RQ-2 Pioneer, a reconnaissance drone used extensively during the 1991 Gulf War. The breakthrough in drones as battlefield weapons was made thanks to Abraham Karem, a former designer for the Israeli Air Force who emigrated to the US in the late 1970s. His GNAT 750 drone was acquired by General Atomics and operated extensively by the CIA over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and 1994. This evolved into the satellite-linked RQ-1 Predator. First used to laser-designate targets and guide weapons fired by other aircraft, by 2000 it had been equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and the first was fired in anger less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.

• • • • • •

The first strike, against a convoy carrying a Taliban leader in Afghanistan, missed. But on Nov. 14, 2001, a Predator that had taken off from a US air base in Uzbekistan fired two Hellfire missiles into a building near Kabul, killing Mohammed Atef, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, and several other senior Al-Qaeda personnel. Since then, silent death from the air has become the signature of American military power, thanks to a remotely operated weapons system from which no one is safe, no matter where they are. This was made clear by the audacious attack on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, killed by a drone strike as he left Baghdad airport on Jan. 3, 2020. The MQ-9 Reaper drone that killed him had been launched from a military base in the Middle East and was controlled by operators at a US airbase over 12,000 km away in Nevada. — Jonathan Gornall


Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

Updated 25 May 2024

Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

KHAN YOUNIS: In a cowshed in Gaza’s Khan Younis, zookeeper Fathi Ahmed Gomaa has created a temporary home for dozens of animals, including lions and baboons, having fled with them from Israel’s offensive in Rafah.
“We’ve moved all the animals we had, except for three big lions that remain (in Rafah),” he said.
“I ran out of time and couldn’t move them.” Ahmed abandoned his zoo in Rafah when Israel ordered the evacuation of parts of the southern Gazan city.
Before the offensive, the city on the border with Egypt had been spared a ground invasion, and more than half of the Gaza Strip’s population was sheltering there.
Now, the Israeli offensive has sent more than 800,000 people fleeing from Rafah, according to the UN, with Gomaa and his family among them.
“I am appealing to the Israeli authorities: these animals have no connection to terrorism,” Gomaa said, saying he wanted their help in coordinating with aid agencies to rescue the lions left behind in Rafah.
He fears they won’t survive long on their own.
“Of course, within a week or 10 days, if we don’t get them out, they will die because they’ll be left with no food or water.”
Gomaa said he had already lost several of his animals to the war: “Three lion cubs, five monkeys, a newborn monkey, and nine squirrels.”
And while the squawking of parrots fills the air, many of Gomaa’s other birds are no longer with him.
“I released some of the dogs, some of the hawks and eagles, some of the pigeons, and some of the ornamental birds. I released many of them because we didn’t have cages to transport them.”
In the cowshed, Gomaa is making do with what he has, using improvised fencing to raise the heights of the pens so that their new inhabitants, spotted deer, can’t leap out.
Israeli troops began their assault on Rafah on May 7, defying widespread international concern for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians sheltering in the city.

EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

Updated 25 May 2024

EU considers possible Rafah border mission, diplomats say

BRUSSELS: Talks on deploying a EU mission at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza are at a preliminary stage and the deployment will not happen without an end to the war between Israel and Hamas, a senior EU official said on Friday.
EU foreign ministers will hold their monthly meeting in Brussels on Monday, and discuss how to improve humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza.
Two diplomats said the US had suggested the EU revive its EU Border Assistance Mission or EUBAM Rafah, which has not been operational since 2007, when Hamas seized full control of Gaza.
The crossing is the main entry point for aid from Egypt and has been closed since Israeli forces took control of it from the Gazan side nearly three weeks ago.
Rafah city is now fire in an Israeli military assault, which judges at the top UN court said on Friday should immediately halt.
“Even if we now have people on the ground talking to the different parties and seeing how it could be done, we are in a very preliminary part of the story,” said the senior official.
The official said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell could be mandated by the 27 members on Monday to come up with “some kind of operative conclusions that could allow the mission to deploy.”
He said a deployment could not happen “in the current circumstances, not in war circumstances.”
“We are talking about the future,” the official said.
Three EU diplomats said the discussion would be on the table, but there was nothing concrete to discuss. One said the proposal was a “long shot.”
The mission would need unanimous approval from EU member states. Also, EUBAM is a civilian mission, and given the potentially dangerous nature of the operation, personnel and equipment would need to be adapted.
Diplomats said that such a mission could go ahead only if Egypt and Israel were also in favor.
Two US officials said Washington was reviewing options to secure the opening of the Rafah crossing, but no definitive plans have been developed yet. Israel began its offensive in Gaza after Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Four Britons repatriated from Syria camp, Kurds say

Updated 24 May 2024

Four Britons repatriated from Syria camp, Kurds say

  • The Kurdish administration said it had “handed over a woman and three children to the United Kingdom“
  • The four had been interned in the Roj camp where militants’ relatives are held

QAMISHLI, Syria: Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria said Friday that they had handed over a woman and three children to British representatives for repatriation, with a source saying they had been held in a camp for militants’ relatives.
Five years after the Daesh group was driven out of its last bastion in Syria, tens of thousands of the militants’ family members, including from Western countries, remain in detention camps in the Kurdish-controlled northeast.
The Kurdish administration said it had “handed over a woman and three children to the United Kingdom,” following a meeting with a British delegation led its Syria envoy Ann Snow.
A source within the administration told AFP the four had been interned in the Roj camp where militants’ relatives are held.
Britain’s foreign ministry said UK officials had “facilitated the repatriation of a number of British nationals from Syria to the United Kingdom.”
“This repatriation is in line with the long-standing policy that all requests for UK consular assistance from Syria are considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant circumstances including national security,” the spokesperson said.
On May 7, the United States announced it had brought back 11 Americans including five minors, as well as a nine-year-old non-US sibling of an American, from internment camps in northeastern Syria.
The United States in the same operation facilitated the repatriation of six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens and one Finnish citizen, eight of them children, Secretary of state Antony Blinken said.
And in December, the Kurdish administration handed over to Britain a woman and five children who had also been held in a camp.
Despite repeated appeals by the Kurdish authorities, a number of Western countries have refused to take back their citizens from the camps.
Among the most high profile cases is that of Shamima Begum, a former Briton stripped of her citizenship after leaving the country aged 15 to marry an Daesh group fighter.

Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri

Updated 24 May 2024

Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri

  • Parliamentary speaker accuses Israel of ‘greed’ over Lebanese resources
  • Berri’s statement came as hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in the southern border region entered their 230th day

BEIRUT: Lebanon is willing to cooperate with any international effort to stop Israeli aggression and bring security to the region, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said on Friday.
However, in a statement marking the 24th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Berri warned that Lebanon “is not ready to waive any of its sovereign rights.”
He also accused Israel of displaying “greed toward Lebanon, its resources, its entity, and its land, sea, and air borders.”
Berri’s statement came as hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in the southern border region entered their 230th day.
The parliamentary speaker called for intensified international and regional efforts to halt Israel’s assault in the Gaza Strip, saying this was crucial to maintain security and stability in the entire region.
Hezbollah claims its actions have been in support of Gaza amid further Israeli threats to Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Thursday from the northern command headquarters “to carry out detailed, important and even surprising plans to return displaced settlers to the north.”
He claimed Israel had killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters.
Benny Gantz, a minister in the Israeli war Cabinet, said: “Get ready from now on for the return of the residents of the north to their houses safely in early September by force or order.”
Berri returned from Tehran after attending the funeral of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash on May 19.
In his message to the Lebanese, he renewed Lebanon’s “commitment and adherence to UN Resolution 1701, and all its terms and stipulations.”
The resolution calls for an end to hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon to be replaced by Lebanese and UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon, and the disarmament of armed groups including Hezbollah.
Berri accused Israel of ignoring the resolution “since the moment it was issued, with over 30,000 land, sea and air violations.”
Lebanon “upholds its right to defend its land with all the available means in the face of Israeli hostilities,” he said.
He called for the liberation of “the remaining occupied territory in the Kfarchouba Hills, the occupied Shebaa Farms, the northern part of the GHajjar village, and the contested border points with occupied Palestine all the way to the B1 point in Ras Al-Naqoura.”
Caretaker Minister of Defense Maurice Slim said that Lebanon preferred peace to war.
However, “defending the land was and will be the Lebanese state’s choice through the resilience of its army and people, especially the steadfast ones who are still residing in their villages and towns to repel the aggression,” he said.
Israeli warplanes on Thursday struck the town of Maroun Al-Ras in the Bint Jbeil district.
Sirens sounded in Israeli settlements opposite the border with Lebanon amid fears of possible drone attacks.
The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Friday that Hezbollah’s drones caused significant damage in the northern towns and resulted in several fatalities.
Another newspaper, Israel Hayom, said that Hezbollah’s drones are “one of the biggest threats facing Israel in the northern arena.”
The newspaper said that Hezbollah leader Mohammed Hassan Fares, who was killed by an Israeli drone strike last week in Qana, was a scientist who specialized in robotics and machine learning.

2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council

Updated 24 May 2024

2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council

  • Palestinians ‘actively deprived’ of essential items as Israel steps up operations in city
  • Some in Gaza have been displaced as many as 9 times since October

LONDON: The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that 2,000 aid trucks are stuck in Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, with Palestinians in Gaza being “actively deprived” of essential goods.
Rafah is the last remaining area of Gaza yet to come under full assault by Israeli forces, with fears now mounting of an imminent operation to take the southern city.
The NRC’s head of operations in Gaza, Suze van Meegen, told the BBC: “The city of Rafah is now comprised of three entirely different worlds: the east is an archetypal war zone, the middle is a ghost town, and the west is a congested mass of people living in deplorable conditions.”
She said medical supplies, tents, water tanks and food are being held up at the border, and in some cases Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced as many as nine times since Israel launched its military operation last October.
“People have no choice but to put their faith in so-called ‘humanitarian safe zones’ designated by the forces that have killed their family members and destroyed their homes,” she added.
Israeli journalist Amos Harel told the BBC that he believes Israel is moving ahead with plans to occupy Rafah with tacit US support.
“It’s quite clear that the Americans are no longer trying to prevent Israel from occupying Rafah. So the Israelis may proceed carefully and not too quickly. But it’s less of a question of whether the Israelis are going to occupy Rafah. It’s quite clear that they are,” he said.
It comes despite earlier warnings by US President Joe Biden against Israel attacking “population centers,” and with the International Court of Justice set to rule on the legality of the Israeli campaign in Gaza after a case was submitted by South Africa in December accusing Israel of genocide.