A drone strike this week targeted a highly sensitive military site outside Tehran where Iran develops missile, nuclear and drone technology, according to three Iranians with knowledge of the attack and to a U.S. official.
The strike on Wednesday evening hit the site of the Parchin military complex, about 37 miles southeast of the capital, with quadcopter suicide drones, according to the Iranian sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly. The drones exploded into a building used by the Ministry of Defense for research on drone development, killing a young engineer who worked at the ministry and injuring another person, they said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack fit a pattern of past Israeli strikes on Iran and Lebanon in a covert campaign of hostility that has been going on for years. A statement from Iran’s Ministry of Defense indicated that it viewed this as an attack, not an accident.
Israeli officials refused to comment. A U.S. official confirmed that suicide drones had attacked Parchin but did not say who was behind it or offer any further details.
On Sunday, just a few days before the strike on Parchin, a colonel in the Revolutionary Guards was gunned down in Tehran, and Israel told the United States that it was behind his killing, according to one intelligence official. The Israelis intended it as a warning to Iran to stop targeting Israeli citizens abroad, the official said.
Israel and Iran are increasingly pushing the boundaries in their long-running clandestine war, and the targeting of a drone research facility at Parchin follows a pattern of Israel trying to counter Iran’s growing drone capabilities.
In recent years, Iran has steadily advanced in its design and production of drones and transfer of drone technology and parts to proxy militias across the Middle East. Iranian drones have been deployed in numerous attacks against Israel, as well as in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and, last October, a U.S. base in Syria, according to intelligence officials.
Israel considers the use of drones by its enemies, especially Iran, as a major threat to its security because drones can evade Israel’s advanced antimissile systems like the Iron Dome. A senior Israeli military official said the country was investing significant resources to locate and destroy enemy drones.
In early February, Israel sent six quadcopter drones containing explosives into a facility near the city of Kermanshah that was Iran’s main manufacturing and storage plant for military drones, according to a senior intelligence official briefed on the operation.
That Israeli attack destroyed dozens of Iran’s drones. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at a housing complex in northern Iraq that it said had been used by Israeli agents to plot attacks against Iran.
In June 2021, another attack using a quadcopter drone — which explodes on impact — was also launched from within the country. It struck the Iran Centrifuge Technology Company, or TESA, in the city of Karaj. TESA is one of Iran’s main manufacturing centers for the production of the advanced centrifuges used at the country’s two nuclear facilities, Natanz and Fardow.
In the face of longstanding suspicions that its nuclear program is aimed at producing weapons, Iran has insisted it is for peaceful purposes only. The United Nations’ watchdog has said it has not found proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
The drone attack on Wednesday was launched from inside Iran, not far from the Parchin military base, according to the Iranian sources with knowledge of the attack. Quadcopter drones have a short flight range, and Parchin is a long way from Iran’s borders.
This would not be the first time that Israel had used operatives inside Iran to carry out attacks.
A statement by Iran’s Ministry of Defense on Thursday used the word “incident” instead of “accident” to describe what happened at Parchin and called the engineer who died a “martyr,” a clear indication that his death was viewed as a result of an enemy action. The statement said one of the research units of the Defense Ministry in the Parchin area was hit.
Several well-known social media accounts affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, including that of the military analyst Hossein Dalirian, also posted that the engineer was a “martyr.”
The senior editor of the conservative Iranian news site Tabnnak, Mostafa Najafi, said in a Twitter post on Thursday that he later deleted: “Israel attacked a ministry of defense facility with a few suicide quadcopter drones.”
The military facility at Parchin has for years attracted international scrutiny.
In 2011, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or I.A.E.A., said that some countries were suspicious that Iran had experimented with developing nuclear weapons at Parchin. The agency’s inspectors gained access to the site in 2015.
Photographs that Israeli officials said were stolen from Iran’s nuclear archive in 2018 appear to show a giant metal chamber in a building at the Parchin military site that was built to conduct high-explosive experiments, needed for the assembly of a nuclear warhead.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.