Can Iranian drone tech shift Middle East’s strategic balance of power?

Clockwise from left: Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command; drones on display at an undisclosed location in central Iran; Iranian military officials inspecting drones on display. (AFP/Iranian Military Office/File Photos)
Clockwise from left: Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command; drones on display at an undisclosed location in central Iran; Iranian military officials inspecting drones on display. (AFP/Iranian Army website/File Photos)
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Updated 26 May 2021

Can Iranian drone tech shift Middle East’s strategic balance of power?

Clockwise from left: Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command; drones on display at an undisclosed location in central Iran; Iranian military officials inspecting drones on display. (AFP/Iranian Military Office/File Photos)
  • Armed drones used by Iran-backed militias against US and partners constitute new form of asymmetric warfare
  • Iran’s drone program has identified chink in its opponents’ armor and is actively exploiting this vulnerability

IRBIL, IRAQ: The drone threat posed to US and coalition personnel by Iran-backed militias is growing, and defenses against such threats remain limited — particularly in the face of Tehran’s growing capabilities. That was the clear message delivered by the US military commander in the Middle East during his most recent visit to Iraq.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie’s warning came in the wake of a rash of drone attacks launched by Iran’s proxies and allied groups in the region against coalition positions and regional partners of the US, a development viewed by many as a sign of a shift in the strategic balance of power.

“We’re working very hard to find technical fixes that would allow us to be more effective against drones,” the US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander said. “We’re open to all kinds of things. The army is working it very hard. Still, I don’t think we’re where we want to be.”

Take the drone attack launched from Iraq in January that targeted Saudi Arabia. Or the explosives-laden drone strike in April that targeted the US troop base at Irbil International Airport inside the normally secure autonomous Kurdistan region, causing a large fire and damage to a building.

While the attacks did not cause major casualties, they nevertheless underscored the evolving nature of the threat, and Iran’s rapidly advancing drone capabilities.

The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen has frequently used loitering munitions, also known as suicide drones, against Saudi Arabia’s civilian and military infrastructure, which appear to feature components based heavily on an Iranian design.

In the conflict in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian group Hamas used kamikaze-type drones against Israel, which exhibited many similarities to the same Iranian design.

In what appears to be more than just a coincidence, a complex that houses a factory that makes Iranian drones suffered a major explosion just days after Israel claimed that Iran was providing drones to Hamas.

Sunday’s blast injured at least nine workers at the petrochemical factory in Isfahan. The Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company, which makes a variety of aircraft and drones for Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, is located in the complex, owned by Sepahan Nargostar Chemical Industries.




A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army's official website on September 11, 2020, shows an Iranian Simorgh drone during the second day of a military exercise in the Gulf, near the strategic strait of Hormuz. (AFP/Iranian Army website/File Photo)

There was no independent confirmation of the cause of the explosion or the precise factory affected. Analysts pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had displayed on Thursday parts of a drone that he said were made by Iran and had flown over from Iraq or Syria.

A recent Reuters report suggests that Iran has changed its strategy in Iraq with regard to use of projectiles. Instead of relying on larger established Shiite militia groups to carry out proxy attacks against US and coalition forces, it is now relying on much smaller militia groups completely loyal to Tehran.

The regime reportedly took 250 of these fighters to Lebanon last year, where they were trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers to fly drones and carry out rocket attacks. The result has been a spate of drone attacks, both within and originating from Iraq.

Weaponry of this kind can be difficult to defend against, even for US forces operating advanced air defense systems, according to experts.

“The use of weaponized drone systems in Yemen, or during the latest conflict in Gaza, is a blueprint for how drones will be used in conflict from this point forward,” Dr. James Rogers, of the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, told Arab News.

“The ability to send multiple drones and missiles all at once means that even the most sophisticated defense systems can be saturated and overrun.”




An image grab taken from Kurdistan 24 TV channel on February 19, 2021 shows damage following a rocket attack two days ago targeting a military complex inside the Irbil airport that hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition. (AFP/Kurdistan 24/File Photo) 

Iran’s fingerprints are all over the recent proliferation of armed drones among non-state actors and militias throughout the Middle East. As Rogers notes, the distance and deniability afforded by the drone has made it “a valued tool” in Iran’s arsenal.

“The Iranian drone program has innovated with sophisticated, indigenously produced drones, which it supplies to regional allies,” he said.

“This broad diffusion of Iranian drone technologies makes it almost impossible to tell who conducted a lethal drone strike in the region, and thus who should be held responsible and accountable. This is only going to get more difficult.”

The designs Iran supplies are very similar to Tehran’s own models, notably the Ababil series. Variants of these drones have appeared in the Houthi and Hamas arsenals, and in that of Iran’s main regional proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The technology has the added benefit of being easily disassembled for covert transport and reassembly at its destination.

For example, an anonymous Iraqi official told the Associated Press news agency that the drone that targeted Riyadh in January was delivered to Iraqi militiamen “in parts from Iran … assembled in Iraq, and launched from Iraq.”




Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami at Tehran's Islamic Revolution and Holy Defence museum during the unveiling of an exhibition of what Iran says are US and other drones captured in its territory, in the capital Tehran on September 21, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

The efficacy of the weapons in question has been augmented by recent advancements in commercial drone technology.

“Now a number of non-state actors have Iranian designs. They are able to produce their own systems, fitted with commercially available technologies, which they can then supply to their allies,” Rogers said. “In essence, the drone is out of the bag, and the threat is spreading.”

Iran is well aware it has found a chink in its opponents’ armor — and is actively exploiting this vulnerability.

“Using suicide drones is a way for Iran to score a serious hit on the US presence (in Iraq) by potentially taking out a high-value asset, which is very hard to do with a spray of unguided long-range rockets, while also being more discriminate and avoiding the risk of a serious kinetic US response,” Alex Almeida, an Iraq security analyst at the energy consultancy Horizon Client Access, told Arab News.

“I think it’s very likely the militias will use these larger fixed-wing drones in the future — if they haven’t already — including potentially for longer-ranged strikes outside Iraq.”

Almeida believes that the US has the “tools” to adequately defend its bases and forces from this drone threat, “even if they don’t seem to have performed effectively in recent attacks” at Irbil or Al-Asad.

“The issue is that if these attacks become more frequent, all US points of presence in Iraq, Syria, and eventually other locales in the region are going to require their own layered counter-drone defenses,” he said. 

“Iran is deliberately presenting a multi-layered threat, from conventional ‘dumb’ mortar and rocket fire to small quadcopter and larger fixed-wing drones. These defensive requirements impose their own additional costs on the US presence, which the Iranians are no doubt aware of.”




An image grab taken from Kurdistan 24 TV channel on February 19, 2021 shows damage following a rocket attack two days ago targeting a military complex inside the Arbil airport that hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition. (AFP/Kurdistan 24/File Photo)

For her part, Kirsten Fontenrose, Middle East security director at the Atlantic Council, believes drone training, technologically complex drone components and the blueprints for locally manufacturing drones are all provided by the IRGC to the militias it directs or arms across the Middle East.

“For the US and its partners in the region, the proliferation of more sophisticated Iranian drone designs made with commercially available Chinese parts requires a reassessment of what the US force presence should look like, what kinds of systems we prioritize developing, and how we train together,” she told Arab News.

Fontenrose said there are three key factors in countering such drone attacks. First is the direction of attack. “Drone detection systems do not always have a 360-degree range of detection,” she said. “If you incorrectly predict the direction from which a drone attack will come, your defenses may be facing away and never see it coming.”

Second, there are the flight guidance enablers on the drone. “You must know whether a drone is guided by GPS, or using cellular signals, or know the frequency it operates on, for example,” she said. “If you target the wrong enabler, you will not defeat the drone.”

Finally, there is the drone’s payload.




Drones during a ceremony in Iran's southern port city of Bandar Abbas. (AFP/Iran’s Revolutionary Guard via Sepah/File Photo)

“If you successfully counter and take over control of a drone that is flying at you, you must know whether it is carrying an explosive, a chemical agent, or a camera before you decide whether to bring it to you to investigate, land it in a populated area to prevent it reaching the target, or return it home possibly carrying sensitive information,” Fontenrose told Arab News.

The Biden team had signaled loudly even before it took office of its determination to find a pathway back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This stated objective has since translated into indirect talks in Vienna.

Strategic and defense experts believe Iran has been testing the US administration with calculated provocations in multiple theaters, partly in an effort to take the measure of President Joe Biden, and partly as a way to gain leverage in the nuclear negotiations.

Nicholas Heras, senior analyst and program head for State Resilience and Fragility at the Newlines Institute, says Iran’s defense establishment is “leaning into a strategy of utilizing drone forces to present asymmetric challenges to more technologically advanced state actor competitors.

“Iran is building best-in-class capabilities with the concept of drone swarms in the air and at sea, which is a skill set that worries US defense and intelligence officials who are required to protect US forces deployed to the Middle East,” Heras told Arab News.

“The IRGC is the global leader in disseminating the tactics, techniques and procedures for drone warfare to non-state actors, who can then execute highly sensitive attacks against Iran’s opponents while giving Iran the ability to deny that it ordered the attacks.”




This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News on May 22, 2021 shows new combat drones dubbed "Gaza" in tribute to Palestinians, unvailed in the capital Tehran, hours after a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian armed factions took effect. (AFP/Iran's Revolutionary Guard via Sepah News)

The IRGC’s preferred models of choice are kamikaze drones, which crash into their respective targets and explode on impact, since they are easy to assemble, easy to operate, easy to use for overwhelming swarm attacks, and very challenging to counter. Such drones are most likely what McKenzie has in mind.

“There is no one anti-air system that will work best against the drone warfare methods that the IRGC is teaching Iran’s partners and proxies,” Heras said.

“Countering Iran’s networked drone warfare requires active signals intelligence to identify operatives and drone manufacturing sites, and rapid reaction strikes to hit them before they get off the ground.”

The threat posed by drones to the US — and, by extension, to its regional partners — has become impossible to ignore even by an administration whose stated goal is to end America’s “forever wars” and focus on the threats from Russia and China.

“These small- and medium-sized (drones) present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies,” McKenzie told Congress in April.

“For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”

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Twitter: @pauliddon


UN experts denounce Israeli branding of Palestinian rights groups as terrorists

UN experts denounce Israeli branding of Palestinian rights groups as terrorists
Updated 47 sec ago

UN experts denounce Israeli branding of Palestinian rights groups as terrorists

UN experts denounce Israeli branding of Palestinian rights groups as terrorists
  • Group of special rapporteurs said designation of six organizations is an ‘attack on the Palestinian human rights movement and on human rights everywhere’
  • They said it is not what a democracy following accepted humanitarian standards would do; called on the international community to ‘defend the defenders’

NEW YORK: UN human rights experts on Monday “strongly and unequivocally” condemned the decision by Israeli authorities to designate six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations.
“This designation is a frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement and on human rights everywhere,” the special rapporteurs said.
“Silencing their voices is not what a democracy adhering to well-accepted human rights and humanitarian standards would do.” 
They called on the international community to “defend the defenders” and added: “These civil society organizations are the canaries in the human rights coalmine, alerting us to the patterns of violations, reminding the international community of its obligations to ensure accountability, and providing voices for those who have none.”
Special rapporteurs are independent experts who serve in individual capacities, and on a voluntary basis, on the UN’s Human Rights Council. They are not members of UN staff and are not paid for their work.
They include Martin Lynk, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, and Fionnuala Ni Aolain, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.
The experts said that antiterrorism laws must not be used as a tool to undermine freedoms, and reminded Israeli authorities that the Security Council and all other UN bodies “have all been clear about the requirement to apply counter-terrorism measures in a manner which is consistent with international law and does not violate states’ international obligations.”
Such “egregious misuse” of counterterrorism measures by Israel, the experts added, undermines the security of all.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Friday designated as terrorist groups the Palestinian organizations Addameer, which provides legal support for prisoners and collects data on arrests and detentions; Al-Haq, which documents rights violations; Defense for Children International Palestine; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees.
“These organizations speak the language of universal human rights (and document abuses in Palestine),” the experts said. 
They added that the decision to designate them as terrorist organizations effectively bans their work and gives the Israeli military free rein to arrest employees, close offices and confiscate assets.
The experts expressed concern that in the case of one of the organizations, the decision might be a reprisal for cooperation with UN groups.
“The Israeli military has frequently targeted human rights defenders in recent years as its occupation has deepened, its defiance of international law has continued and its record of human rights violations has worsened,” the experts said.
“While international and Israeli human rights organizations have faced heavy criticism, legislative restrictions and even deportations, Palestinian human rights defenders have always encountered the severest constraints.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that the UN office in Jerusalem, in addressing the issue, continues to engage with the Israeli authorities and the concerned parties.
“The secretary-general has repeatedly expressed concern about the shrinking space for civil society in many places around the world, including in Israel,” he added.


Prince Charles to visit Jordan and Egypt to follow up on COP26 commitments

Prince Charles to visit Jordan and Egypt to follow up on COP26 commitments
Updated 34 min 13 sec ago

Prince Charles to visit Jordan and Egypt to follow up on COP26 commitments

Prince Charles to visit Jordan and Egypt to follow up on COP26 commitments
  • In Jordan the prince and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall with meet King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, and representatives of humanitarian organizations
  • In Egypt they will meet the president and first lady, and discuss with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar ‘religious harmony and the role of faith in preserving the environment’

LONDON: Britain’s Prince Charles will travel to the Middle East next month on a trip that aims to showcase strong bilateral relationships and address the climate crisis.

The prince and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, will visit Jordan and Egypt from Nov. 16 to 19, as part of his autumn tour, at the request of the British government, his office announced on Monday. During his last autumn tour, in 2019, he visited India, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands.

Prince Charles “will explore how leaders, the private sector and wider society can implement commitments” following the World Leaders’ Summit that will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

During his visit to Jordan, which coincides with the nation’s centenary celebrations this year and 100 years of the UK-Jordan bilateral relationship, the royal couple will meet King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at Al-Husseiniya Palace.

They will also tour cultural and religions sites in Jordan and meet representatives of humanitarian organizations, including the UN Refugee Agency and the International Rescue Committee, the latter of which he became patron in January last year.

Charles will use his visit to focus on environmental issues, heritage preservation, and the creation of jobs and opportunities for young people. He will also participate in an interfaith discussion that “will acknowledge the diverse, tolerant and integrated nature of Jordanian society, highlighting the importance placed on religious freedom,” the prince’s office said. Camilla will focus on supporting education for women and girls and will discuss with Queen Rania her efforts in this area.

“Their royal highnesses’ return to Jordan underlines the importance that Her Majesty’s Government places on its close ties with Jordan, which is underpinned by the countries’ deep security cooperation and the long-standing relationship between the two royal families,” according to the prince’s office.

It added that Charles, who last visited Jordan in February 2015, will highlight the nation’s generosity in hosting refugees forced to flee conflicts in neighboring countries.

During their visit to Egypt, the royal couple will meet President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and First Lady Entissar Amer at Al-Ittihadiya Palace. They will also meet the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar to discuss “religious harmony and the role of faith in preserving the environment, (which) will serve to further strengthen religious ties between the UK and Egypt,” the prince’s office said.

Egypt will assume the presidency of COP27 in 2022, so the talks will also focus on efforts to combat climate change, it added.

“Their visit to Egypt will highlight the country’s close relationship with the UK, and will provide an opportunity to demonstrate Egypt’s growing commitment to protecting the environment,” the prince’s office said.

Charles and Camilla last visited the North African country in 2006. The trip will conclude with a reception in the shadow of the pyramids in Giza to celebrate the bond between the nations, and a visit to the ancient city of Alexandria.


Officials: Iran behind drone attack on US base in Syria

Officials: Iran behind drone attack on US base in Syria
Updated 25 October 2021

Officials: Iran behind drone attack on US base in Syria

Officials: Iran behind drone attack on US base in Syria
  • 'They were Iranian drones, and Iran appears to have facilitated their use'
  • Attacks involved as many as five drones laden with explosive charges

WASHINGTON: US officials say they believe Iran was behind the drone attack last week at the military outpost in southern Syria where American troops are based.
Officials said Monday the US believes that Iran resourced and encouraged the attack, but that the drones were not launched from Iran. They were Iranian drones, and Iran appears to have facilitated their use, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not been made public.
Officials said they believe the attacks involved as many as five drones laden with explosive charges, and that they hit both the US side of Al-Tanf garrison and the side where Syrian opposition forces stay.
There were no reported injuries or deaths as a result of the attack.
US and coalition troops are based at Al-Tanf to train Syrian forces on patrols to counter Daesh militants. The base is also located on a road serving as a vital link for Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon and Israel.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to provide details when asked about the report during a news conference Monday. He called it a “complex, coordinated and deliberate attack” and said the US has seen similar ones before from Shia militia groups that are backed by Iran. But he would not go into specifics and said he had no update on the munitions used in the attack.
Kirby also declined to say if troops were warned ahead of time or whether the US intends to make a military response.
“The protection and security of our troops overseas remains a paramount concern for the secretary,” Kirby said, referring to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, “and that if there is to be a response, it will be at a time and a place and a manner of our choosing, and we certainly won’t get ahead of those kinds of decisions.”
Pro-Iran media outlets have been saying that the attack on Tanf was carried out by “Syria’s allies” — an apparent reference to Iran-backed groups — in retaliation for an attack days earlier near the historic Syrian town of Palmyra. Israel has been blamed for the attack, but US officials say America was not involved with it.
The Al-Tanf attack came in a period of rising tensions with Iran. The Biden administration this week said international diplomatic efforts to get Iran back into negotiations to return to a 2015 nuclear deal were at a “critical place” and that patience Is wearing thin.
The last major Iranian attack on US forces was in January 2020, when Tehran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles on Al-Asad air base in Iraq. US and coalition troops were warned of the incoming missiles and were able to take cover, but more than 100 US service members received traumatic brain injuries as a result of the blasts.
The Iran attack was in response to the US drone strike earlier that month near the Baghdad airport that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
Two months after the Al-Asad assault, US fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.


Egypt’s President El-Sisi ends state of emergency after more than four years

Egypt’s President El-Sisi ends state of emergency after more than four years
Updated 25 October 2021

Egypt’s President El-Sisi ends state of emergency after more than four years

Egypt’s President El-Sisi ends state of emergency after more than four years
  • Since it was imposed in April 2017, it has been extended at three-month intervals

CAIRO: Egypt’s president said Monday he will not extend the state of emergency that had been imposed across the country for the first time in years.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced his decision in a Facebook post. He said the move came because “Egypt has become an oasis of security and stability in the region.”
Egypt first imposed a state of emergency in April 2017 and has extended it at three-month intervals since.
It was imposed following deadly church bombings and attacks on Coptic Christians that have killed more than 100 people and wounded scores. The government extended the order every three months after that.
The state of emergency allows for arrests without warrants, the swift prosecution of suspects and the establishment of special courts.
The emergency measure technically ended over the weekend.
(With AP and Reuters)


Gaza fish restaurants thrive far from the foodie trail

Gaza fish restaurants thrive far from the foodie trail
Updated 26 October 2021

Gaza fish restaurants thrive far from the foodie trail

Gaza fish restaurants thrive far from the foodie trail
  • Of the 4,200 tons of fish and seafood netted from Gaza’s waters last year, just 300 tons were exported to the West Bank

GAZA CITY: The Gaza Strip might be off-limits for foreign foodies but the coastal Palestinian enclave is brimming with seafood restaurants, many owned by one local family whose culinary hook is their matriarch’s spicy fish tajine.

Munir Abu Hasira arrives at the Gaza port’s fish market at daybreak, but holds back as traders snatch up sardines and other fish caught during the night.

He is angling for more discerning catches like grouper, sea bream and large shrimp, which can go for around 70 shekels ($22) a kilo — a small fortune in the impoverished enclave, under Israeli blockade since 2007.

“It’s expensive because of the economic situation, but we buy the fish to supply restaurants and to export” to the occupied West Bank, he says, as workers pile fresh fish into a van.

For decades, the Abu Hasira family were fishermen, but since opening their first restaurant in the 1970s, they have gradually traded their fishing kit for chef’s tools.

Gaza fishermen say they struggle to eke out a living, snared by Israeli restrictions on the enclave’s fishing zone and on importing equipment into the enclave, from boat motors to sonar devices for finding shoals.

Problems like overfishing and pollution blight the local industry.

Some 4,200 tons of fish and seafood were netted from Gaza’s waters last year, according to the Israeli authorities. Just 300 tons were exported to the West Bank.

Sitting on a chair in a Gaza courtyard, Eid Abu Hasira, in his 80s, said he was the last of the family’s fishermen.

“I sold everything in 2013,” said the head of the family, sporting a white moustache and wearing a traditional robe and headdress.

“Today, we are in the fish trade, and have 13 Abu Hasira restaurants,” he said, clutching Muslim prayer beads as he leaned on a wooden cane.

One of his ancestors was a prominent Jewish Moroccan rabbi, who died during a trip to Egypt in the 19th century.

A descendent in Egypt had a vision that “they had to go to Gaza,” Eid Abu Hasira said.

“So we came here. My grandfather chose to live off the sea,” he said, adding that a Jewish branch of the family lives in Israel, while those in Gaza are Muslim.

As a young boy, his mother would cook up a seafood tajine that has become the Abu Hasira family chain’s signature dish.

Moeen Abu Hasira, 56, paid homage to his family’s culinary heritage, from their signature shrimp and tomato tajine, known as “zibdiyit,” to a fish tajine made with tahini, herbs and pine nuts, to grilled grouper.

“The secret of Gaza cuisine is strong chili,” he said from the kitchen of his restaurant, which he opened earlier this year.

The Abu Hasira family’s clientele has changed over time.

“Until the start of the first intifada, our restaurants were packed. Israelis came to eat here and so did tourists,” Moeen Abu Hasira said, referring to the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Since the Israeli blockade began in 2007 after the Islamist group Hamas took control of the enclave, few international tourists, foodies or gastronomic guide writers have visited.

Now, the family’s restaurants cater to a well-off Palestinian clientele, but Moeen Abu Hasira said times were hard as unemployment in Gaza hovers around 50 percent.

“Nobody will give you a star” in recognition of your restaurant, said the chef, who trained in French cuisine in a restaurant in the Israeli city of Jaffa.

“We did not learn in cooking schools or universities. There is none of that in Gaza,” he said. “We all learn from each other.”