Russia-Ukraine War: Israel must deter Iran as it gives Russia drones - analysis

If Iran thinks its drones are successful in Ukraine it could take the information and knowledge gained from terrorizing Ukrainians to threaten Israel.

 A view of drones during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 24, 2022 (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A view of drones during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 24, 2022
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Over the last week, there has been increasing pressure on Israel to support Ukraine militarily; particularly in the realm of air defense systems that could defend against Russia’s use of Iranian drones.

The evidence for Iran supplying Russia with drones is now clear; and there is increasing evidence that Iran has even sent IRGC advisors to aid the Russians with the drones. Israel’s choices now, in relation to aiding Ukraine, may have a deterrence factor on Iran, but they could also have unintended consequences because of the rapidly growing Iran-Russia alliance on drones and other threats.

To understand the issues involved, it’s first worth looking at how we got here.  

Israel has one of the most advanced integrated multi-layered air defense systems in the world. This complex system has come about due to Israel’s realization in the 1990s that it needed better defenses against missile threats after the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel. The drive for better air defenses got more acute after the 2006 Lebanon War when it became clear that Iranian-backed Hezbollah was now increasing the range of its missiles, and those missiles were sitting directly on Israel’s northern border.  

Israel cooperates closely with the US on air defense systems, including joint work on Arrow and David’s Sling air defenses. In addition, Israel invented the Iron Dome, which has been in service for more than 10 years and had thousands of successful interceptions. Iron Dome has helped Israel neutralize the Hamas rocket threat. Those rockets have improved their range and accuracy because of Iran’s backing of Hamas. 

 IRON DOME interceptors destroy rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the skies over Ashkelon in May. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) IRON DOME interceptors destroy rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the skies over Ashkelon in May. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Now we come to 2022.

It is clear that Iran has developed drone threats in the region in recent years to target Israel. It has tested those drones by supplying them to the Houthis in Yemen and helping the Houthis build an indigenous Iranian-style drone program. Iran also targeted Saudi Arabia and has used drones and missiles against Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq and against US forces. Clearly, the Iran drone threat is increasing and Iran likes to test its drones around the region, basically inflaming 4,000 miles of frontline from the Red Sea to Lebanon with drone and missile threats. 

Now Iran is spreading its drone threat to include Europe, Latin America, Africa and Central Asia by exporting drones to Ethiopia and Venezuela; establishing a factory in Tajikistan; and sending drones to Russia. There may also be links between Iran's manufacturing of components for drones and companies in China and also an Iran-North Korea missile technology transfer collaboration.  

Israel must keep Iran deterred.

Iran is a “third circle” threat, which means it is developing nuclear weapons and has missiles that can threaten Israel from a long distance. But Iran also moves weapons via Syria to Lebanon. Israel has been conducting a campaign between the wars to interdict the Iranian weapons flow. Iran also moves missiles to Iraqi-based militias and it has moved systems to Yemen; which means the threat is growing. With Iran feeling confident that it can ship drones to Russia; apparently in the thousands according to reports; we are facing a new drone world order; where the Iran-Russia drone axis wreaks havoc in Ukraine and the Middle East. It may even wreak havoc further afield, if Russia chooses to use drones to harass Scandinavian countries or conduct other missions.  

Israel must deter Iran, but Israel doesn’t want any direct confrontation with Russian forces in Syria. Furthermore, if Iran thinks its drones are successful in Ukraine it could take the information and knowledge gained from terrorizing Ukrainians to threaten Israel. In addition, if Israel is able to help Ukraine and the help doesn’t interdict the drones, then Israel could look weak in the face of the threat.

Israel cannot afford to look weak and it cannot afford to have Iran get more customers for its drones. Israel also cannot allow Iran to improve the drones and import new technology or get new investment and technology transfer from countries like Russia, which could enable the drones to improve their range, guidance and communications and enable them to evade detection better, or even swarm targets.

All of this matters, and as Israel weighs support for Ukraine, the Iranians are watching. This must enter any calculation as to the next step Israel takes.