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Analysis | Drones and the US-Iran Shadow War

by MEA

18 Dec 2012 23:31Comments

A look at the likely next theater in an unceasing conflict.

[ overview ] The Islamic Republic of Iran learned the importance of unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, technology in its defense against Saddam Hussein's armed forces during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Among the various forms of support the United States lent the Iraqi regime, American intelligence was providing satellite imagery of Iran's military positions. To partially redress the imbalance in surveillance capabilities, in 1983 Iran began to develop its own drone technology through two firms, Quds Air Industries and Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company. The drones they produced, dubbed Talash and Mohajer, were used extensively during the final years of the war with Iraq.

Since the war, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had led further Iranian pursuits in the field of drone technology. The past 12 months have seen a series of confrontations and technological developments involving both Iranian and U.S. drones.

In early December 2011, the Revolutionary Guards managed to capture an RQ-170 Sentinel -- an advanced American drone, nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" after its extensive deployment in Afghanistan. Iran declared that it had brought down the Lockheed Martin-produced drone almost entirely intact.

This November, Iran announced that one of its planes had shot at an American Predator drone flying over the Persian Gulf, allegedly in Iranian airspace. According to Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards' aerospace division, those were warning shots: "Americans should be aware of our red lines and observe them." Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaei, wrote to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to complain about what he described as repeated U.S. violations of Iranian airspace near the Bushehr power station, which he called "illegal and provocative acts."

Earlier this month, on the eve of the anniversary of the Beast's capture, Hajizadeh told reporters that Iranian technicians had succeeded in cracking its encrypted software.

He claimed that Washington had made a show of using the drone to mollify Israel, which was demanding that it do something about the Iranian nuclear program. "All of the RQ-170's data was downloaded and it did not have even one single nuclear mission over Iran," Hajizadeh declared.

This odd assertion could well indicate that Iranian experts had in fact failed to extract the drone's secrets, perhaps because its computer systems had erased their contents, a safeguard employed by software designers for highly sensitive information.

Hajizadeh also boasted about his department's successes in manufacturing highly sophisticated drones. Referring to a drone that Iran's Hezbollah allies in Lebanon used to infiltrate Israeli airspace recently, he said, "Ayob was our product from the last decade." In September, the Guards unveiled a new drone with capabilities far surpassing those of the Ayob, the Shahed 129.

It was an unusual move for Hezbollah to publicly announce that the drone used against Israel was manufactured in Iran and assembled in Lebanon, and even more unusual when Iran publicly backed Hezbollah's claim.

In early December, as well, the Guards' naval chief, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, announced that his forces had captured a ScanEagle drone, one of the many operated by the U.S. Navy.

Fadavi told the Fars News Agency that the drone -- a low-cost long-range surveillance model -- had conducted several reconnaissance flights over the Persian Gulf in recent days, while the American navy asserted that none of its ScanEagles were missing.

Iranian state TV showed a ScanEagle that appeared virtually brand-new and hardly like one that had been brought down in the Persian Gulf, as had been suggested.

Since the American use of drones has increased exponentially since President Barack Obama took office, notably over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, it is hardly far-fetched to believe it is employing drones over Iran for intelligence gathering.

Based on the available evidence, though Iran's ScanEagle claim must be treated with suspicion given its routine exaggerations and fabrications about its military prowess, it seems increasingly likely that this drone war will turn even hotter, with Tehran giving the green light to its armed forces to shoot down an American drone over the Persian Gulf or its Iranian coast.

The Islamic Republic clearly saw strategic benefit in delivering indirect blows to U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, arming and otherwise backing anti-American forces. As those operations have wound down, the most hardline Guard commanders have been looking for a new theater in which to make a show of force against the United States.

Iran cannot go toe-to-toe with the American military machine, but there is a strong sense among Guard commanders that Washington has no stomach for another war, a conviction that is encouraging them to make not only extravagant claims, but bold choices as well. There is little question as to where they will look to flex their muscles: the Persian Gulf.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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