Nowhere has Iran made greater strides in indigenous military technology than with unmanned aerial vehicles. It flew its first UAV, a crude surveillance drone, over Iraqi trenches in the latter part of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and in recent years has worked satellite-GPS guidance so as to no longer rely on line-of-sight operations. It has also armed drones with missiles and crafted others for kamikaze operations. Now, Iranian authorities have announced a new capability: counter-electronics and jamming. While the Iranian military might gear these to enemy communications or seek to blind other drones, Iran’s willingness to share UAVs and technology with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups might mean new threats to civilian air traffic in the region.
Consider Bahrain, for example. Iranian leaders have threatened Bahrain openly since 2007, but they have become particularly blunt and virulent with their threats over the past two months. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for example, suggested he would “remove the barrier” to “radical and armed movements.” The Bahraini opposition has long sought to wage economic warfare against the island because of its discrimination and repression of Shi’ites. Hence, it has encouraged multinational firms to leave Manama and has also protested the Bahrain Grand Prix. Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national airlines, might not have the reach of Emirates or Qatar Airlines, but it still brings significant revenue to the island. Could Iranian drones—operated directly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or by proxy—be used to temporarily jam air traffic communications over the island’s airport? No accident need occur—just news of the incident would cripple air traffic into Manama.
Or, consider Israel: The Federal Aviation Administration briefly banned U.S. airliners from flying into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport after Hamas fired a rocket in the direction of the airport. That ban was likely a political decision on the part of the Obama White House and basically rewarded terrorism and put a target over the facility. Hezbollah has already used drones to overfly Israel. Might the Iranian-sponsored proxy try to jam communications with airliners descending into Israel?
Ditto Saudi Arabia: Iran has been on the sectarian warpath against the Saudi Kingdom for long before a Hajj stampede killed some Iranian pilgrims. The Iranian government is boycotting the Hajj this year, refusing to send an Iranian delegation to perform the annual rite in September. Given the war of words between the two rivals—and the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia being fought in Yemen, just a few hundred miles to the south of Mecca and Medina, could the Revolutionary Guards or Iranian proxies use the communications-jamming UAV to interfere with Hajj flights or communications securing the pilgrimage?
All of these scenarios are theoretical of course, but one thing is not: Iran is acquiring new capabilities and if there’s one lesson from the past few decades, it is that Iran seldom acquires a capability which it or its proxies will not eventually use.