A deadly attack on an oil tanker by explosive-laden drones. Unmanned aircraft launched from the Gaza Strip hitting Israeli neighborhoods. Strikes on Saudi Arabian refineries and pipelines and on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Behind this wave of attacks, U.S., European and Israeli defense officials say: Iran and its allies across the Middle East. They say Tehran’s rapidly developing ability to build and deploy drones is changing the security equation in a region already on edge.
The drones themselves are often made with widely available components used in the ever-growing commercial drone market and by hobbyists, the officials say. Some mimic the designs of Israeli and American military drones.
“Developing a nuclear weapon would take years. With drones, just a few months,” an Iranian official told The Wall Street Journal. “Drones have changed the balance of power in the Middle East.”
Iran’s delegation at the United Nations in New York didn’t respond to a request for comment on accusations that the country is behind the wave of drone attacks.
For decades, armed drones were almost exclusively the preserve of advanced militaries such as those of the U.S. and Israel. More recently, Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has made significant strides in developing effective, low-cost drones.
Tehran’s engineers rely on imported components to create aerial vehicles that can accurately strike targets at long distance and rapidly change direction to avoid air defenses and radar, say European and Middle Eastern security officials who have studied wreckages of the drones.
These officials also say Iran and its allies are stepping up attacks. On Sept. 13, Iran-aligned forces in Yemen targeted the city of Jazan in southern Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles. A few days earlier, a drone equipped with explosives targeted an Iraqi airport where some U.S. forces are stationed, local authorities said.
Iran’s drone program can be traced to Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries, a military-controlled company that runs an aerospace factory in Isfahan, central Iran, according to Iranian corporate records, Iran’s conservative and semiofficial FARS news agency and European security officials.
The plant was originally set up in the 1970s by American defense contractor Textron to make military helicopters at a time when Iran’s ruling monarch,
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi,
was a key ally of Washington in the region.
Iran Aircraft Manufacturing controls a little-known entity called the Company for Designing and Manufacturing Light Aircraft, which develops high-tech drones, Iranian corporate records show. The state-owned venture recently received a large cash injection, raising its capital to the equivalent of $271.5 million from $1.5 million, according to company records.
The company is chaired by Gen. Hojjatulah Qureshi, according to minutes of its board meetings viewed by the Journal. He has also been in charge of Iran’s military research.
Iran’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment addressed to Gen. Qureshi.
On the company’s board is Hamidreza Sharifi Tehrani, an engineer who regularly attends seminars on civilian drones in countries such as Italy and Australia, according to the corporate documents and the website of a young scientists’ organization in Iran. Mr. Sharifi Tehrani didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
After an explosives-laden drone slammed into Israel-linked tanker Mercer Street in the Arabian Sea in July, Israeli leaders publicly named Brig. Gen. Saeed Ara Jani, a little-known figure they accused of orchestrating the attack.
“When we identify someone publicly, the purpose is to send a message to his employer that we know exactly what you are doing and it is our intention to prevent it,” said one Israeli official.
The official said the U.S. and other Western nations were underestimating the risks of Iran’s drone program and called on them to take more aggressive steps. “There very well might be a situation where they are getting bolder, more courageous, and less deterred,” the official said.
The U.S. is preparing to expand sanctions against Iran’s drone program, the Journal has previously reported.
But “sanctions may not be able to affect Iran’s program,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, a former Persian Gulf-focused director at the White House’s National Security Council.
That is because unlike the heavy industry of a nuclear program, drones often rely on commercial, off-the-shelf components that can be bought online to assemble innocuous, radio-controlled gadgets, she said. Effectively blocking such sales is harder.
A confidential report prepared for the British government by C4ADS, a Washington-based think tank, found that Iran has been able to successfully arm its Houthi allies in Yemen using a network of commercial companies around the world to procure components, including some that have evaded sanctions.
“Gaps in the global export control regime and its enforcement enable Iran to procure these items and enable Houthi-linked networks to procure critical components without going through Iran,” the report concluded.
Iranian-designed drones in Iraq, Yemen and Gaza use the same model of engine, the DLE-111, made by Chinese model-airplane specialist Mile Hao Xiang Technology Co. Ltd., say experts, including from the U.N., who have examined them.
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The company told the U.N. the components used in Iranian drones were counterfeit. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Journal.
In recent years, Mile Hao Xiang Technology, whose DLE-111 sells on Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba for $500, has also exported its engines to U.S. manufacturers of radio-controlled miniature aircraft, customs records show.
“This technology is made for American teenagers to play with their toys,” said a former Western security official who has investigated Iran’s drone program.
A sophisticated South Korean-made component found on drones used against coalition forces in Yemen was tracked to a Tehran toy shop that sold remote-controlled model aircraft including miniature replicas of U.S. jet fighters, according to a U.N. investigation.
The component, known as a servomotor, combines an engine with a sensor that enables precise control of the position and speed of a drone.
Iran has also found other ways to obtain sophisticated technology. A U.N. probe into delta-wing drones, which have triangular wings, found that a key component had been manufactured in Sweden.
The component was shipped to Tehran via an Indian food-trading company before being assembled into drones used in strikes against Saudi oil facilities in May and September 2019, where they were retrieved. The U.S. says the same Iranian drone model was used in the Mercer Street attack.
Iran has used copies of the most sensitive pieces of technology developed by U.S. and Israeli companies. The drones that attacked Saudi oil facilities used a replica of a high-performance engine made by a British unit of Israeli defense contractor
Systems. The engine’s technology was developed in the U.K., not Israel, a person familiar with Elbit’s operations said.
The same engine copy was available for sale on the website of a Chinese company, suggesting China may have been involved in the reverse engineering, said a person familiar with the U.N. probe.
One Iranian drone used in the Syrian civil war is also heavily based on the Israeli Hermes 450. Israeli officials suspect Iran received a Hermes model from Tehran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, after it crashed in Lebanon.
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