Iran’s drone terror goes global
Do not dismiss Iranian drones in Russian hands, especially not as they rain fire and terror on Kyiv and cities across Ukraine almost nightly. These Iranian suicide drones — the Shahed-136, most notably, with its unmistakable shape — are a potent terror weapon.
But do not take the Iranian regime’s denials that they would ever supply such arms at face value. And understand also the escalation this represents in Iran’s global involvement in international terrorism.
For a decade now, Iran has been involved in a regional campaign of militia warfare and international terrorism across the Middle East. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has generated, funded and led on the battlefield a multiplicity of militia groups as they fought Israel, the US, Syrian rebels, Iraqi protesters, the internationally recognized Yemeni government — and civilians who got in their way.
At some point in the past decade, Iran added a new capacity to its already bristling ballistic missile program. Along with the missiles, it started to equip its proxies across the region with drones. Martyr drones, they were called; they were cheaply made and intended to be little more than flying bombs.
This Iranian campaign was of inestimable importance. Its attacks on the Saudi and Emirati economies alone, and attacks on tankers and cargo vessels in the Arabian Gulf, cost the world economy many hundreds of millions of dollars. It made Israel feel increasingly nervous and besieged as drone and missile-armed Iranian militias appeared on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border.
But for many European policymakers, and even in the US, this was dismissed as a gimcrack Iranian effort using rickety technology. Something for the Arabs and the Israelis to get their act together and solve themselves. Nothing to do with us.
Iran’s leaders lie about having supplied the drones, but the sale must have been signed off at the highest levels
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
All of this has changed in this decade. Not only has the US begun to appreciate the cost mismatch of an Iranian missile or drone worth $20,000 or as little as $200 requiring Patriot interception (each Patriot missile costing between $1 million and $3 million); it has also begun to understand that, in the Gulf and even the Mediterranean, drones can terrorize shipping to such an extent that traditional naval support might be totally insufficient.
All of this has prompted new thinking in Washington — and not before time.
But that is nothing compared with the lessons now being learnt as Iran arms Russia with killer drones.
Each night, the European nations see Iranian drones smash into the Ukrainian power grid, subjecting millions to blackouts and water shortages. Every night brings the possibility of a slow-moving drone with a lawnmower engine crashing into an apartment building, starting a fire that will collapse the structure and kill anyone who fails to get out in time.
These are savage tactics against civilian targets, and Iran entirely backs them.
Iran’s leaders lie about having supplied the drones, but the sale must have been signed off at the highest levels. Iranian trainers, possibly as many as a hundred, are in Crimea at the moment operating the drones, actively participating in the war.
This not only makes Iran an arms supplier to Russia, but also makes its forces a party to the conflict. In effect, Iran has joined the small Russian-Belarusian coalition.
Iran’s leaders did not do this for money. They did it as an active statement of policy and intent. They wished to signal not only the effectiveness of their technology for terror, but also their willingness to participate in that terror actively.
This is something beyond even Iranian drone engineers and operators steering drones and missiles from Yemen into the Saudi oil economy, or drones from southern Iran and Iraq hitting Abu Dhabi, or harassing shipping in the Gulf. It is Iran joining a doomed war condemned by the majority of the globe, in order to prove to the world Iranian willingness to stand by its allies in committing acts of terror against civilians whom Iran has no historical reason to oppose.
This is another signal of a new world that we will shortly encounter: one in which the authoritarian states will not afford each other diplomatic support, spread each other’s propaganda and vote together at the UN. Now they will join each other’s wars for no other reason than to demonstrate their capacity and willingness to terrorize civilians of a distant democracy.
It is a deeply concerning precedent, and one the West must understand for what it is — and react quickly and decisively to stop and to punish.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim