On Aug. 24, the Islamic Republic Guard Corps Air Force announced that it had shot down a stealthy Israeli drone near the Natanz uranium-enrichment complex.
The claim coincided with a steady stream of military propaganda flowing from government agencies around the official National Defense Industries Day, so some observers viewed the drone press release with immense skepticism.
The skeptics are on to something. Iranian troops apparently did shoot down an Israeli-designed drone, but it probably didn’t take off from Israel. It’s probably from Azerbaijan.
Iran possesses some of world’s best air-defense systems—including guns, missiles and gigantic over-the-horizon radars. The fact that a drone penetrated all the way to a strategic Iranian facility reveals flaws in the air-defense network, but Iranian propaganda is portraying the shoot-down as a victory.
Brig. Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander in chief of the IRGC-AF, held a press conference to announce that the downed drone is a Hermes-type remotely piloted aircraft. The general showed off pictures he claimed depict the ’bot’s remnants.
The IRGC-AF claimed Iranian troops shot down the drone with a surface-to-air missile. The picture Hajizadeh circulated seems to show a Hermes with an intact nose and a mangled tail section. The damage could be the result of a missile striking the aircraft from behind.
In the initial hours following Hajizadeh’s announcement, Iran’s conservative media—some of whom answer to the IRGC—started to spread speculation that some of the publications attributed to anonymous sources within the IRGC-AF.
The IRGC is notorious for its counter-information tactics. It plants ideas in sympathetic media in order to advance a political agenda.
One publication cited IRGC sources saying the drone took off from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Red Sea and passed over Saudi Arabia before entering Iran. Another news outlet said the drone took off from Irbil in northern Iraq. And of course there were the implications that the pilotless spy plane came from Israel.
There are several different variants of Hermes drones. Iranian media seem to assume the robot in question is a Hermes-450. But this model probably has an 800-kilometer range—and that’s inadequate to reach central Iran from Israel.
It also should go without saying that the Americans don’t currently launch large operational Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from aircraft carriers—although they certainly do operate spy drones around Iran. Nor do Kurdish forces in Irbil possess Hermes-style robots.
So whose drone is it? First we have to positively identify the exact type of machine it is.
The IRGC-AF is intimately familiar with the Hermes-450. In early 2006, a German Hermes-450 belonging to the European country’s contingent in Afghanistan crashed along Iran’s northeastern border.
The IRGC-AF published a detailed analysis of the German machine’s subsystems, revealing a layer of radar-absorbing material—critical to stealth—inside the fuselage plus back-up computers, panoramic cameras and infrared sensors as well as reconnaissance radars.
But there are clues in Hajizadeh’s picture that the drone is not a Hermes-450. That model of drone has a variable-pitch, fiber-carbon blade, but the photo clearly shows a fixed-pitch wooden propeller.
And that’s why we believe the drone is a Hermes-180—specifically, a Hermes-180 belonging to Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor.
Consider this. Back in 2011, the Armenian armed forces claimed they had shot down a Hermes-type UAV coming from Azerbaijan. There’s photo evidence—seen below—and it closely matches the IRGC’s photo of the more recent robot destruction.
Later, anonymous Azeri officials told Turkish media that the drone actually had departed from an Israeli facility in Karabakh in order to spy on Iran.
But there’s reason to believe the drone currently in question actually is Azeri. Iran and Azerbaijan are at odds over oil reserves in the Caspian Sea.
The Caspian is tense. Iran has launched its second frigate in the sea and is about to deploy a submarine and two missile boats, too. Azerbaijan is buying Israeli and Russian drones, tanks, rockets and surface-to-air missiles.
It’s unlikely the drone that Iranian forces downed near Natanz came from Israel—or that it’s American or Kurdish. It seems more likely it came from the north, from Azerbaijan.