The Target: Hypersonic Missiles? The Rare Night Attack in Iran and the Message from Israel to Tehran

Only Russia and China have maneuverable missiles that move at least five times the speed of sound. The overnight attack was attributed to Israel, and possibly carried out following an Iranian attempt to develop game-changing weapons that can penetrate air defenses, possibly with Russia’s help. The message: We know, and we will not stand idly by. Just like it did after the destruction of the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, Tehran is likely to respond.

No party has yet taken responsibility for the attack Saturday night in central Iran. However, according to all indications, whoever carried out the attack has intelligence capability and advanced technological prowess allowing it to conduct an attack from the air against a sensitive military industrial installation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. It was an installation defended by a system of air defense batteries. American sources said that Israel conducted the attack, and we should not discount the fact the attack targeted Iran’s effort to develop hypersonic missiles, a game-changing weapon that can penetrate air defense systems.

The Iranians themselves announced that the installations that were attacked were an “ammunition factory” in Isfahan. The Iranian regime also indicated that the attack was conducted by large drones (quadrocopters with four blades) that carried a large amount of explosives (“suicide drones”) equipped with cameras and navigation sensors that drop and are detonated with great precision over their target.

The attack at Isfahan apparently was quite successful. According to Iranian sources, the attack hit four weapons development facilities, which, until now, were not operational. The targets lay deep inside the Islamic Republic at a distance of hundreds of kilometers from the shores of the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea and the borders with neighboring states. Therefore, it is logical to assume that these suicide drones were launched from inside Iranian territory.

Only a state has the kinds of resources necessary to conduct this kind of sophisticated and expensive attack with such high precision and success. In the Middle East, only three state entities have this kind of advanced capability: the United States, Israel, and, to a limited extent, Azerbaijan.

The Americans have an interest in maintaining calm in the Middle East so it can focus on the war in Ukraine and the strategic economic conflict with China. Azerbaijan has a genuine conflict with Iran, and its embassy in Tehran was attacked two days ago. Yet this does not justify a military revenge attack against an Iranian weapons facility that is located so far away from Tehran and from the Iran-Azerbaijan border. We can also assume the citizens of Azerbaijan are very concerned that their powerful neighbor could cause them harm in a number of ways.

As reported, American sources told The Wall Street Journal that Israel conducted the overnight attack and, based on what was said, there is no reason for doubt. It is reasonable to assume that the Mossad initiated and conducted the nighttime attack, possibly with outside cooperation. One could also conclude that this was an attack on an Iranian facility apparently linked to the Ayatollah’s nuclear weapons program that poses a tangible threat to Israel.

Given the severity of the threat, perhaps we can learn something from the fact that, according to foreign publications, this is the first time in almost a year that Israel has bombed nuclear facilities or military industries deep inside Iran. Suicide UAVs (apparently drones) were most recently deployed in February 2022, when a military UAV manufacturing facility was attacked along with a storage facility near the city of Kermanshah in northern Iran in the Kurdish zone.

According to foreign media reports, that attack was conducted in response to a number of Iranian attempts to use long-range UAVs against Israel. Israel identified and interdicted the attempted strikes, some of them with American assistance. The attack against the manufacturing facility was intended to destroy Iran’s ability to produce large quantities of the suicide UAVs that Iran supplied to Russia, which is currently using them against Ukraine. It is possible that the attack attributed to the Mossad in Kermanshah is now preventing the Iranians from selling large quantities of Shahed-136 and 139 UAVs to Russia.

The attack at Kermanshah last February was also intended to signal to the Iranians that Israel does not intend to hold back, given Iran’s use of UAV weapons to attack its interests –- whether these are commercial ships under Israeli ownership in the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf or explosive UAVs launched directly at Israeli territory. It was clear that Israel was operating through the Mossad in Iran when the potential threat by these UAVs became severe.

It is logical to surmise, therefore, that the overnight attack was launched against facilities developing and manufacturing modern combat weapons with the potential to present a severe threat to Israel. There is an important factory in Isfahan for processing raw uranium called “yellow cake,” and from which enriched uranium is produced at various levels. Therefore, it is possible that the drone attack was intended to destroy another facility belonging to the Iranian nuclear program and to signal to the Iranians that Israel will not stand idly by and will act if, for example, Iran begins to enrich uranium to the level of 90%, the level at which fissile material is used to produce a bomb.

It is also possible that the attack was directed against another weapons system that was possibly meant to indirectly serve the Iranian nuclear program. Perhaps the target was hypersonic missiles (missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound) –- the last word in the field of precision missiles and armaments.

The Iranians have an interest in developing these kinds of missiles given their speed (at least five times the speed of sound), precision, and maneuverability. These attributes allow hyper and ultrasonic missiles to successfully penetrate Israel’s air defense systems.

Currently, only China and Russia have hypersonic missiles, and Russia has launched the Kinzhal missile several times during its war against Ukraine. The United States is developing these missiles at a rapid pace, but is still behind. It is logical to assume that the Iranians, perhaps with Russian assistance, are trying to develop hypersonic weapons, which, in the future, could be used to launch nuclear warheads at any target they choose in the Middle East (including of course Israel), Europe and the American continent. Hypersonic weapons, even without nuclear warheads, will give Iran the status of a global military superpower and allow it to impose its will at distances of thousands of kilometers from its borders.

After the UAVs were destroyed at Kermanshah, the Iranians responded wildly and fired missiles at a building in the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq, which they claimed was a military camp used by the Mossad to train Kurds. We should remember that even the attack in Isfahan, which struck a very sensitive site, will provoke an Iranian reaction.

In any case, the rare overnight attack was apparently intended to signal to Iran, whether these were hypersonic missiles or not, that Israel is paying attention, is aware, and will not stand idly by. In the meantime, this is a reddish yellow card.*

*Editor’s note: This phrase is a soccer reference. A yellow card is less harsh, more of a warning. A red card signifies a major penalty with consequent punishment.

About this publication

About Charles Railey 43 Articles
I recently retired from the federal government, having worked for many years on Middle East issues and regional media. My fascination with the region has never changed and this is one reason why the work of Watching America caught my eye. I live in the DC area with my wife, two grown children, and three cats.

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