Iran struggles with rumors of downed drone and air defense failure

Stories implying the country can't control its airspace have circulated over the last day.

 A drone is seen during an Iranian Army exercise dubbed 'Zulfiqar 1400', in the coastal area of the Gulf of Oman, Iran, in this picture obtained on November 7, 2021 (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)
A drone is seen during an Iranian Army exercise dubbed 'Zulfiqar 1400', in the coastal area of the Gulf of Oman, Iran, in this picture obtained on November 7, 2021
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)

Iran has struggled in recent days with a variety of stories that included a downed drone being carted off by helicopter, stories of air defense being used and an explosion near Natanz, the site of a nuclear facility. For Iran, none of the stories have clear explanations and feed the rumor mill that the country can’t control its airspace or keep sensitive sites safe.

The story of a downed drone showed up on social media via video along with photos of a drone that had apparently crashed in Kuhrang County, Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari Province. The drone looks like a large V-shaped craft, likely a Shahed 171 Simorgh, which is itself a copy of a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone. Iran copied the stealthy American drone after downing one in 2011.

The country has a large arsenal of drones and has been using them frequently and exporting them across the region. In September, Defense Minister Benny Gantz raised the alarm about an Iran drone base at Kashan where Iran trains drone operators. Gantz exposed more Iran drone bases in November in a briefing.

The same day as the drone footage appeared, there were also responses to reports of an explosion near Natanz.

“A loud explosion was heard near Iran’s main nuclear facilities at Natanz,” Al Jazeera reported. The reports emerged Saturday. The explosions were some 200 kilometers (around 125 miles) from where the drone crashed, so there doesn’t appear to be a link.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad gestures during a news conference in Damascus, Syria (credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad gestures during a news conference in Damascus, Syria (credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)

Iran has an explanation for both. The drone was doing cloud seeding, according to reports. Why a military-style stealth drone would be needed for this is unclear. Iran has claimed the mysterious explosion or noises heard near Natanz were actually from an air-defense drill. Why were air defenses triggered? And if it was a drill, why conduct it near a sensitive facility? Iran issued no official NOTAM, or notice to aircraft regarding this drill. It has issued NOTAMs in the past for air-defense activity, and closed airspace for events.

Overall, this leaves many guessing about what is going on in Iran. It adds to the rumors and tensions. Iran has left the Vienna talks aimed at some kind of new Iran nuclear deal. Iran may be enriching more nuclear material. Israel-Iran tensions appear to be growing. Reports this week indicate that Syria’s foreign minister Faisal Mekdad will be in Tehran for a two-day visit. It has also been reported that the United Arab Emirates’ national security adviser is going to Iran this week.

If Iran did use air defenses near Natanz, it raises concerns about what Iran is using them for. Iranian air defenses shot down a civilian airliner in January 2020 because its air defense was concerned over US retaliation for an Iranian ballistic missile attack on US forces in Iraq. It’s not clear if Iranian air defenses should be firing wildly near a nuclear facility. It’s also unclear why a sophisticated Iranian drone fell out of the sky a day later.