The Real Purpose of the Hezbollah Drone

Tehran long ago made it clear that hitting the heart of Israel’s nuclear prowess would be a fitting response to any preemptive attack on its nuclear sites.

In taking responsibility for the October 6 dispatch of an unmanned aerial vehicle over southern Israel, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said: "It is our natural right to send other reconnaissance flights inside occupied Palestine..."

Most analysts assessed the operation was a joint Iranian-Hezbollah undertaking. They accepted that the probable motive was intelligence gathering. But Nasrallah's claim may be a smoke screen. The bulk of Hezbollah's weaponry - rockets, Katyushas, etc. - are in effect low-accuracy "statistical weapons," which have been used mainly against Israeli urban centers. Such weapons do not normally require tactical information, let alone real-time intelligence of the kind supplied by advanced UAVs.

Another suggestion was that the UAV was delivering some sort of a deterrent message to Israel. After all Nasrallah claimed the drone "flew over sensitive installations inside southern Palestine and was shot down in an area near the Dimona nuclear reactor." However, this argument is rooted in a logical fallacy that equates what transpired with what was planned. In other words, that the mission was in fact meant to be discovered so that the warning could be communicated.

Yet, Iran and Hezbollah had taken extraordinary steps to camouflage the drone's mission. The use of a small, slow-flying vehicle making its way at a low altitude was undoubtedly designed to make detection tricky. The long and circuitous route flown by the drone was meant to hide its origins and assure penetration into Israeli airspace. Its entry point, via the Gaza Strip, was intended to take advantage of the presence of other drones, Israeli ones, in the area. Undertaking the incursion on Shabbat apparently reflected the hope that the alertness of the Israel Defense Forces' air control system would be diminished. One source also alleged that the UAV was made of radar-absorbent fibers that made its detection extra difficult.

The meticulous planning involved in its dispatch indicates how crucial the drone's mission was to those behind it. Rather than conducting reconnaissance or sending a warning signal, all indications are that it was on a dry run for a future one-way kamikaze-type attack on the Dimona reactor and was to return to base.

Drones can be configured to carry a relatively large amount of explosives and to reach their targets with precision. Hence, they are capable of inflicting considerable damage - on a par with what would be caused by a medium-range missile.

Tehran long ago made it clear that hitting the heart of Israel's nuclear prowess would be a fitting response to any preemptive attack on its nuclear weapons sites. Consequently, it has increasingly groomed Hezbollah as a stopgap strategic deterrent against Israel, until it can field its own nuclear option. For one, according to foreign sources, it has armed its Lebanese proxy with rockets capable of reaching the Dimona reactor.

This past August, Nasrallah said that a small number of precisely fired rockets against selected targets could "transform the lives of millions of Zionists in occupied Palestine to a real hell." He warned of tens of thousands of Israeli fatalities. Additionally, The New York Times cited a classified 2008 report by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency as saying that soon after Israeli warplanes practiced over the Mediterranean in June of that year, the commander of the Iranian air force ordered fighter units to "conduct daily air-to-ground attack training at firing ranges resembling the Israeli city of Haifa and the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona."

It appears that despite their missile bravado, some in Tehran are unsure whether their long-range delivery platforms can actually penetrate Israeli defenses, let alone hit a well-defended target like the Dimona site. The UAV flight may have been a test of an alternative means to reach the Israeli reactor. Had it arrived at its destination undetected, Iran could have concluded it had mastered a surefire, surreptitious way to hit the ultimate source and symbol of Israel's regional strategic superiority. As Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi hurried to claim in the wake of the incident, "The era in which the Zionist regime could think it has regional supremacy is over."

The interception of the drone, though belated, meant Tehran failed in its primary objective of devising a reliable and readily available means to strike the Dimona nuclear site. Still, the incident must be viewed as indicative of Iran and/or Hezbollah's active preparations to launch strategic attacks, especially on Israel's last-resort guardians of its survival.

In the meantime, Iran and Hezbollah sought to use the drone's exposure politically. Nasrallah strove to prop up his group's clout by extolling its ability to "reach any place anytime in occupied Palestine."

One can only imagine what would Hezbolla be up to once it was under the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. Indeed, by whipping up tensions around Israel's nuclear complexes, the mullahs and their Lebanese proxies aim to deter Washington, and provide the Obama administration with an added incentive to block a possible Israeli preemption, intimating that any attack on Iran's installations would lead to a nuclear catastrophe, as sites like Dimona could and would be hit. The notion of a surgical strike is thus an illusion, Tehran implies.

In effect, Iran is seeking to turn Israel's supposed unconventional capability according to foreign sources into a liability instead of a strategic asset. By holding the Dimona reactor hostage, Iran is essentially attempting a reverse nuclear blackmail scheme aimed at constraining Israel's freedom of action, both directly and through Washington. If successful, the net result would be that Iran's own nuclear gambit will continue unmolested.

Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence" (Yale University Press).