Taking Aim

Congress takes aim at Iranian drone issue as concerns mount

The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a measure shoring up U.S. sanctions on weaponized Iranian drones

Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

A person is seen at the site targeted by aerial attacks on December 05, 2021 in Sana'a, Yemen.

Observers and U.S. partners inside and outside the Middle East have raised alarms in recent weeks about the growing threat of weaponized drones used by Iran and its proxies to attack U.S. troops and partner nations — and Congress appears to be taking notice.

On Friday, a bill clarifying that the creation and proliferation of weaponized drones and drone technology is covered under the U.S.’s conventional weapons sanctions on Iran sailed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a bipartisan voice vote. The bill was first introduced less than two weeks ago.

“As we have seen in recent months, Iran and Iran-aligned terrorist and militia groups have been growing increasingly aggressive with their drone attacks in the Middle East, targeting U.S. troops, commercial vessels, partner countries and more,” Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY), the committee chair, said. “The Biden administration is already taking this threat seriously and this clarification will help show the international community that Iranian UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] proliferation will not be tolerated by the United States Congress.”

Meeks also said the bill would “in no way interfere with the ongoing nuclear talks” taking place in Vienna.

The committee rejected an amendment from Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) that would have added a provision to the bill addressing Iran’s nuclear program.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the committee’s ranking member, noted that he and Meeks disagree about the nuclear negotiations but “are in lockstep that Congress needs a strong, united response to the drones targeting American service members and diplomats as well as our allies in the Middle East.”

The sanctions approach is also likely to find support in the Senate.

“[Drones] should be part of any sanctions conversation with Iran,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Jewish Insider last week.

In what several senators characterized as another move to counter to Iranian drones, a bipartisan group of senators last week blocked efforts to stop a sale of $650 million in air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia, which the kingdom uses against drones and missiles. Thirty senators voted in favor of blocking the sale.

But Saudi Arabian officials said last week that they need hundreds more Patriot missiles, which cost around $1 million each, to maintain their defenses against the drones, and are turning to both the U.S. and U.S. partners around the world for help.

“That’s a big danger,” Rubio said, of the Patriot missile shortage. “Whatever it takes to defeat any sort of Iranian proxies from presenting a danger not just to them but to others in the region and the world.”

The administration is reportedly considering selling more missiles directly to Saudi Arabia, a sale that would likely trigger another battle in Congress.

Some observers in Israel say the U.S. has not been aggressive enough in its response to the drone threat.

“Drones are a technology that is easy to acquire, easy to operate, you can buy some of the stuff on Amazon and it might change the balance of power. It gives terrorists a weapon that is not that easy to defend against, particularly as they fly low, and they can carry a lot of explosives,” Professor Ephraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JI last week. “Iran should pay a cost for arming its proxies with this type of weaponry.”

“If some militias use Iranian drones to attack American targets like the Al-Tanf base [in the Syrian desert near the borders of Iraq and Jordan] or American bases in Iraq, they should shoot back. It’s simple,” Inbar continued. “Once Americans were good cowboys, they are no longer so.”

Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who also served in Israel’s National Security Council, told JI that the drone issue is “a chance for Israel to offer its assistance” to Saudi Arabia, though the chances of that happening “are very low right now.”

“There is all kinds of assistance Israel could offer, not necessary to sell them Iron Dome batteries but it is about Israel [assisting] in an unofficial, quiet way, not to embarrass the Saudis,” Guzansky said. “[Israel and Saudi Arabia] face mostly the same threats from Iran. The Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon are cooperating with each other; in the same way, Israel can learn from the Saudis about the threats it’s facing — we should be learning from each other.”

Guzansky also criticized the U.S. for pulling back forces from the kingdom (the U.S. removed most of its own missile defense and Patriot batteries earlier this year) even as Saudi Arabia threats continue.

“They [Saudi Arabia] do have a gap in their air defenses; we saw that in the 2019 attack on their oil installations, and the paradox is that now, when they are suffering so much from these missile attacks, the U.S. is evacuating its assets from Saudi Arabia,” Guzansky said.

Jewish Insider’s Ruth Eglash and Tamara Zieve contributed reporting.