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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Israeli-linked tanker attacked by sophisticated Iranian drones

A ship attacked off the coast of Oman is raising tensions between Israel and Iran as Israel’s Foreign Minister slammed Iran on Friday as an exporter of terrorism, destruction, instability and a threat to the freedom of navigation. Pro-Iran social media accounts and a report at Al-Alam TV has said Iran carried out the attack on the ship in response to an airstrike in Syria that Iran blames on Israel. 

New details of the attack on the 600-foot long Mercer Street tanker have revealed that drones were used to spread death and destruction. Two were killed in the attack. The New York Times reported that two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that “the attack appeared to have been carried out by several unmanned Iranian drones that crashed into living quarters underneath the ship’s command center, or bridge.” This looks like a serious and complex attack that is not just a major escalation, but a new use of Iran drone technology.  

Iran has been increasing its drone abilities in recent years. It has a large number of militarized drones such as the Shahed, Mohajer and Ababil lines. Iran also recently showcased a new drone named after Gaza. Iran claims its drones have long ranges as they can reach more than 1,000 miles, and that some can carry missiles while others can be pre-programmed to carry out precision attacks by slamming into targets. For instance, Iranian-style kamikaze drones have been developed by Hamas in Gaza, where they are called Shehab, and by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, who use the Qasef drone. The Houthis have terrorized Saudi Arabia with these drones, as they carry a warhead in their body and are programmed to strike a target using some kind of gyroscope and guidance system. US and regional Gulf reports have linked drones across the region to Iranian construction and blueprints via details like gyroscopes. 

Iran has a plethora of drones. Its Shahed-129 looks like an American Predator, as does its new “Gaza” drone, a Shahed-149. ,The Shahed 121 is a smaller reconnaissance drone, and the Shahed 123 tis also part of the same line of drones. Iran also makes drones called Raad, Saegeh, Sarir, Fotros, Karrar, Kian and others. Some of the Iranian drones mentioned in sources may not exist, such as the Shahed-136, which was allegedly sent to Yemen in January, in order to target Israel .  

The important point is that Iran relies on drones to threaten enemies around the region, usually by transferring the drones to proxies and allies such as Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. Iranian operators may fly the drones from places like the T-4 airbase in Syria, but the overall goal is that the attacks not be easily linked to Iran, when the drones are used against Israel, the US in Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, Kurdish forces and others. In some cases, parts and munitions that may be used in drones have been intercepted at sea by the US Navy as Iran has sought to move weapons to the Houthis.  

THE REPORTED use of numerous drones against the Mercer Street could mark a new era in the Middle East and a major red line as drones are being used against ships. Using several drones to precisely target parts of the ship, such as the bridge or living quarters, may indicate advanced surveillance and intelligence capabilities. It is unclear if Iran’s drones can be piloted once they are launched by a ground control station. That means that an attack on a ship is complex as ships are in constant movement, and it’s unclear how Iran might program the drones to strike the ship precisely. Even at anchor, a ship will shift around with the tide or wind.
How then could the drone target specific areas, unless it was controlled up until the impact? These are key questions.  

If Iran has reached a new level of precision drone strikes and is using them against shipping in deadly attacks, this is a major milestone. Iran may also be moving these drones to the Houthis or others, or basing them on ships. Iranian ships have recently sailed all the way to Russia, around Africa, and brought drones with them. Iran has also put drones on its IRGC fast boats, and has tested drones in recent naval exercises.  

The Iran drone threat from bases in Syria or from Hezbollah, Hamas, or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, was known. The Houthi drone threat was also well known. In addition, Iran’s use of drones to attack Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 was a major incident that some experts described as a kind of Pearl Harbor for the new technology. Air defenses have been improved against drones, but the Houthis continue to use them against Riyadh and pro-Iran militias in Iraq have showcased dozens of Iranian drones that they now have in their arsenal. It is believed that they used a drone to strike a secret CIA hangar in Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region in April of this year. In addition it is believed Kataib Hezbollah used an Iranian-supplied drone to strike at Saudi Arabia in 2019. Iran also used drones to monitor attacks on ISIS and in Syria in 2017 to help fight ISIS. It also used drones flown from Kirkuk in 2018 to target Kurdish dissidents, and in July 2019 it used a new drone unit to target Kurds once again. 

Iranian drones and drone technology are now a major emerging threat from Lebanon all the way through Syria and Iraq to the Persian Gulf and then to the Gulf of Oman and Yemen, stretching thousands of miles and potentially putting ships and forces from the US and many allies and partners in danger.  

Iran may be signaling that it will strike using drones at sea in deadly attacks in what it claims are responses to Israeli strikes in Syria or elsewhere. A pro-Iran social media account says that Iran’s armed drone ability is increasing and that this incident showcases the new Iran policy of retaliation. 


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