Israel Passed on Iran Drone Intel to U.S. Before It Imposed New Sanctions

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PM Naftali Bennett and ministers Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz at the Knesset, in September.
PM Naftali Bennett and ministers Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz at the Knesset, in September.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The United States slapped new sanctions on Iran on Friday, targeting two companies and four individuals linked to the production and use of military drones by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

According to the U.S. Treasury, the drones are used by terror groups supported by Iran, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Houthis in Yemen. The sanctions include severed access to assets in the U.S., and a ban on transactions with these individuals and companies.

Israel recently passed on to the U.S. administration comprehensive intelligence on the heads of the Iranian drone program, including those sanctioned, and the expanded use of armed drones over the past year against various targets in the Persian Gulf.

The Treasury’s announcement stated that one of the individuals sanctioned is Saeed Ara Jani, head of the UAV Unit in the Revolutionary Guard’s air force, who led the attack on the Israeli-owned tanker Mercer Street, in the Bay of Oman last July, in which two crew members were killed.

Also sanctioned were Mohammad Ebrahim Zargar Tehrani, who helped the Iranian firm Kimia Part Sivan in purchasing components from outside of Iran to improve its UAV array; Abdollah Mehrabi, a senior Revolutionary Guard member and owner of the Iranian firm Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar, which supplied the Revolutionary Guard with drone engines; and also the company’s director Youssef Abu Talbi. Both companies were also sanctioned.

Israel claims that three of six attacks by Iran since September 2019 were definitely carried out by unmanned aircraft, including the one on September 14 of that year against Saudi Arabia, in which dozens of drones and cruise missiles reportedly took part, the April 13 attack on the Hyperion Ray and the Mercer Street attack, both this year.

The intel was passed from Israeli delegates to American colleagues in joint work groups. The data pointed to a great strengthening of the UAV array, its responsibility for a series of attacks against American and Western targets, and suggested sanctions which could make it harder for Iran to sustain this move.

Israel, however, estimates that the administration has announced the sanctions as leverage against the regime, in an attempt to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table regarding the nuclear deal. But the American move may, at the same time, help Israel’s effort to deter Iran from using the array it has amassed and from expanding it.

Israel has acted in recent months to enlist the international community in a fight against Iran’s deployment of military drones and has placed this struggle, alongside the nuclear issue, at the top of its priorities in the effort to foil Iran’s deepening involvement in the Middle East.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed the main points of the plan, as well as Head of the IRGC's UAV Command Ara Jani’s name in a briefing to foreign ambassadors.

In another talk at the Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) he showed a detailed map marking the intelligence estimates on Iranian UAV deployment by country: Syria has hundreds of UAVs stationed on its soil. Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has dozens more. A few dozen more have been sent to the Houthis in Yemen and to Iranian proxies in Iraq.

Last month, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with colleagues in Bahrain and discussed cooperation in facing the UAV threat and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed the UAV issue explicitly in his UN speech.

“Just this year, Iran made operational a new deadly terror unit, a startup: swarms of killer UAVs 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,” said Bennett, adding: “Iran has already used these deadly UAVs — called Shahed 136 — to attack Saudi Arabia, U.S. targets in Iraq and civilian ships at sea.”

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