Israel Believes Iran Uses Drone Attacks to Influence Nuclear Talks

Israeli officials point to a correlation between the timing of attacks and interests that Iran was pursuing in talks with the U.S. and other powers

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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This image provided by the Iranian Army Office in November shows a military drone being fired into the air during a military exercise on the shore of the Oman sea.
This image provided by the Iranian Army Office in November shows a military drone being fired into the air during a military exercise on the shore of the Oman sea.Credit: Iranian Army office / AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Iran is using drone attacks on Persian Gulf targets staged by its proxies as a means of pressuring the United States and others into easing demands concerning its nuclear program, Israeli government sources say.

Drone attacks are routinely used in regional conflicts waged by Iranian proxies, but Tehran is also using attacks to indirectly pressure the international community into concessions on its nuclear program. Officials pointed to a correlation between the timing of attacks on civilian targets and interests that Iran was pursuing in its talks with the United States and other powers.

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Intelligence gathered in Israel shows that Iran acts to obscure its part in the attack by refraining from carrying out attacks itself and instead using terror groups in the countries where it has set up drone bases. The fact that these are limited attacks launched from bases far from its sovereign territory has enabled Iran thus far to operate without eliciting significant military reprisals and obscure its involvement.

Officials said Iran is careful not to directly strike at American targets, which could provoke retaliation and harden American positions. Instead, Tehran’s strategy is to raise the risk of shipping in the Gulf in the hope that Gulf oil exporters will pressure the international community to ease its nuclear demands on Iran.

Israeli intelligence puts the number of drones deployed in Syria to date in the hundreds, while strongholds in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon (Hezbollah) hold several-dozen each.

the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mercer Street, attacked in July.Credit: Johan Victor / AP

Israel has passed on intelligence to the U.S. and several other countries showing that three of six Iranian attacks in the Middle East since September 2019 were carried out by unmanned aircraft, including the attack on Saudi Arabian oil-processing facilities in September of that year, the attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker last July and the attack on the Hyperion Ray cargo ship last April.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on companies and individuals affiliated with Iran’s drone program. Intel passed from Israeli intelligence officials to their American counterparts at the time pertained to the expanded use of drones over the past year and identified senior personnel involved, including four who were sanctioned. Saeed Ara Jani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ drone unit, who was responsible for the attack on the Mercer Street in which two crew members were killed; Mohammed Ebrahim Zargar Tehrani, who helped the Iranian firm Kimia Part Sivan import components to improve the drones; Abdollah Mehrabi, a senior Revolutionary Guard official and owner of the company Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar which supplied engines for the drones; and Yusef Abu Talbi, a Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar director.

The four men’s access to assets in the United States has been blocked, and American citizens have been prohibited from dealing with them or the two companies.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed the matter publicly in his United Nations General Assembly address in September, saying “Just this year, Iran made operational a new deadly terror unit, a startup: swarms of killer unmanned aerial vehicles armed with lethal weapons that can attack any place any time.”

“They plan to blanket the skies of the Middle East with this lethal force,” he added.

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