In the early hours of January 29 the Israeli Defence Forces launched a drone strike on a munitions facility near the Iranian city of Isfahan, with one of the three aircraft shot down by air defences while two more crashed into a protective mesh above a military facilities. The Iranian Defence Ministry commented regarding the strike that: “this unsuccessful attack did not cause any loss of life and caused minor damage to the workshop’s roof.” Explosions were near simultaneously reported to have occurred Alborz Province but unconfirmed. The classes of drones used in the reported strike remain uncertain, with the perpetrator of the assault initially being widely speculated before the Wall Street Journal reported, citing U.S. officials and other “people familiar with the operation,” that Tel Aviv had been responsible.
Attempted drone strikes on Iran follow growing Israeli concerns regarding both Iran’s nuclear program, which has seen constraints on uranium enrichment lifted in response to the imposition of Western economic sanctions from 2018, as well as the significant presence of Iranian forces and allied militias in Israel’s neighbours Syria and Lebanon. Israel has been widely suspected of playing key roles in multiple assassinations on Iranian soil over the past three years including of military officials and scientists tied to the country’s nuclear program. Iran has itself deployed drones for multiple operations in Israeli airspace, including stealth drones which proved extremely difficult for Israeli forces to neutralise, although it has refrained from escalating to strike Israeli targets. Lower end Iranian non-stealth combat drones have recently been extensively combat tested, reportedly with impressive results, in the Russian-Ukrainian War after exports to Russia.
Although Israel lacks drones with comparable flying wing designs and stealth capabilities to those in Iranian service, its fleet of manned combat aircraft is significantly more modern and capable and has been involved in multiple recent exercises simulating attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. This included the largest U.S.-Israel war-game in history, Juniper Oak 23, which began on January 23 and saw several American B-52H nuclear capable intercontinental range bombers deployed. The Israeli Air Force is not known to be capable of destroying heavily fortified Iranian nuclear facilities or missile bases, the latter which carry armaments which could be used in retaliatory strikes, meaning the participation of American bombers and particularly stealthy B-2 Spirits would be key to the success of a strike operation. Both Tel Aviv and Washington may perceive their window for strikes to be narrowing as Iran not only continues to strengthen its air defences, but is also set to receive its first modern fighter aircraft from abroad within the next 13 months in the form of a unit of Russian Su-35s – which could seriously complicate a potential attack.
Should Tehran believe Israel to be responsible for the recent drone attacks, the possibility of retaliation is significant potentially using Iran’s own very sizeable drone fleet to neutralise equivalent Israeli targets on the country’s own territory. Iran notably responded to the CIA assassination in January 2020 of its most decorated military officer, General Qasem Soleimani, with missile strikes on U.S. military facilities in Iraq, causing over 100 casualties. This sets a strong precedent for Iran to retaliate quickly for attacks on its territory.