Iran’s drone industry
Iran has been producing drones for both military and civilian applications for a number of years to add to the ongoing development of its airborne defence capabilities despite being the target of military sanctions by all global players.
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the resulting hostility between Iran and the West, international sanctions have spurred Tehran towards self-sufficiency in all manner of goods, particularly military items.
A long-standing western arms embargo has meant that Iran has been unable to upgrade its military as regional peers have raced ahead quantitatively and qualitatively with the support of the West, according to Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on Iran at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
“One very special weakness that Iran started to feel was its inability to upgrade its air force in a meaningful way,” Azizi told Middle East Eye. “The Islamic Republic inherited the air force from the shah, but it’s basically no longer suitable for any military conflict with either regional or global adversaries.”
It was during the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-1980s that Tehran’s interest in drones really started, with the first drone called Ababil, meaning a flock of birds, a name foreshadowing the country’s strategic use of drones on the battlefield.
In the decades since, “the Iranian drone programme has been devised as an integral part of the country’s military”, said Azizi.
Iran has been producing drones since the early 2000s, but had success in the mid-2000s when it managed to force down several American spy drones and recover them to strip and study their technology.
The country’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strategy is one of the four pillars of the Iranian military strategy, the others being its missile programme, its network of non-state allies and proxies and its growing capabilities in the field of cyber warfare.
Taken together, said Azizi, these comprise the pillars of “asymmetric deterrence” that Iran has developed in the face of crippling sanctions.
The Iranian military has also developed a stealth drone called the IAIO Fotros. This drone is believed to be capable of carrying out airstrikes but there have been no reports from Ukraine of the use of these drones yet.
In addition to its growing arsenal of cheap drones, the Shahed 129 is a medium-altitude long-endurance MALE UAV that made its maiden flight in 2012, and has been sold to both Hezbollah and the Syrian Army. The Shahed 129 has a flight endurance of 24 hours and can carry up to eight missiles. It is also equipped with day and night cameras and can be used for target acquisition and battle damage assessment.
According to US intelligence analysts, the unique advantage Iran has in its use of the drones is the low production cost of around $20,000 per Shahed 136, with most of its parts sourced on the Chinese markets, because of US sanctions. The US analysts have also said that although not as technically advanced as their American counterparts, the Iranian drones are more than a match for the US Army’s ScanEagle UAVs, which are used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One senior US intelligence official told The New York Times that “the Iranians have been quite innovative in their ability to produce these systems, and they’ve shared that technology with others”. He added that the US had observed Iranian drones being used by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US intelligence analysts say that Iran is now able to produce around 20 Shahed 136 drones per year, but with Russia’s demand so high, it has likely already massively ramped up production.
Iran’s isolation from its former arms suppliers has meant that the country has primarily emphasised self-sufficiency. A US attack that destroyed much of the Iranian navy in 1988, which the International Court of Justice later ruled was unjustified, only catalysed the need to bring about a deterrence against US air power.
The task of developing the country’s drone programme has fallen mainly to several defence firms, with the Qods Aviation Industry Co, Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Co and Shahed Aviation Industries leading the charge in designing some of the country’s most formidable drones.
Compared to Israeli, Turkish or American drones, they might be simple, but they are effective.
The Iranian drone industry is expanding rapidly after the government earmarked a large increase in military spending. In addition to the new factory in Tajikistan, Iran has plans to build two more drone production facilities in that country. The Iranian government has also been investing in research and development for new drone technologies.
One of the main drivers of Iran’s drone industry is the country’s ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Iran launched a military drone into Saudi airspace in an attempt to collect intelligence on Riyadh’s military installations. The drone was shot down by the Saudis, but the incident demonstrated Iran’s capability to launch long-range unmanned aircraft.
Since then, Iran has continued to develop drones for both military and civilian purposes. The country’s domestic drone industry is now worth an estimated $1bn and it has now begun to actively export its tech to partners like Russia.
Iran’s supply of drones to Russia
Russia has imported hundreds of Iranian Shahed 136 kamikaze drones to deadly effect and over 1,000 more are on their way from Tehran, according to reports.
Iran initially denied such claims, but admitted for the first time on Saturday that it has sent drones to Russia, although insisting they were supplied to its ally before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We supplied Russia with a limited number of drones months before the war in Ukraine,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, quoted by the official news agency IRNA.
According to reports Russia has ordered a total of 1,700 drones, which are delivered in batches of 300, and at least two batches have already arrived in Russia.
Ukraine is not helpless against the drones, as its Western allies have been rushing in better air defence systems and more are on the way. Of the 330 drones launched against Ukraine in the last week, the Defence Ministry claims to have shot down 222, but that 30% of the drones strike their targets or land nearby, according to Budanov.
Kyiv has said around 400 Iranian drones have already been used against the civilian population of Ukraine, and that Moscow has ordered around 2,000.
In response to these transfers, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed sanctions on three Iranian generals and an arms firm accused of supplying Russia with drones.
In September, Kyiv decided to significantly reduce diplomatic relations with Tehran because of alleged arms shipments to the country.
Why is Iran supplying Russia with drones?
The use of these drones has given Iran a chance to test them in a dynamic conflict, allowing its scientists to learn and its politicians to showcase Iranian hardware.
A former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and top military aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Major-General Yahia Rahim Safavi, recently said that at least 22 countries were interested in obtaining Iranian-made military drones.
Iran’s hostile relations with the West, alongside its strengthening ties with Russia in recent years, spurred by joint interest in Syria for instance, have all pointed towards this drone sale. However, this alone is not enough to justify such a large-scale drone sale to Russia with such risk in the conflict. Iran’s own geopolitical ambitions also play an important, if not decisive role in this decision.
As the Carnegie endowment for international peace laid out, Iran’s entry into the conflict—similar to Turkey’s supply of TB2 drones to Ukraine’s military—signifies a more meaningful geopolitical shift. In the past decade, drone technology has advanced at a rapid clip, with emerging powers such as Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the UAE at the forefront. As the technology used for drones has become more cost-effective and accessible, an array of ambitious actors have been able to enter the market—bringing both profits and geopolitical returns.
For Iran, the benefits of placing its drones in Russia’s hands are significant. Iran first began to develop drone technology in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, and it has nurtured an advanced industry of both surveillance and attack vehicles, despite having to deal with major sanctions to its military and missile programs. Yet it has only had limited success selling its weapons to a handful of states, such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Venezuela. The deployment of the Shahed and Mohajer drones have given Iran an important propaganda opportunity. As international attention has turned to Russia’s latest aerial assault, Iran’s armaments have accrued valuable attention and potential future clients, particularly from rogue regimes and sanctioned states that face difficulties in acquiring these weapons. Its linkage to the Russian campaign provides an important legitimizing effect and may help move Tehran’s weapons industry toward a more prominent role as a major arms exporter. Most importantly, Iran sees in Ukraine an opportunity to push back against U.S. interests and to bleed an American ally that has made unexpected gains in recent months.
So far, Iran’s drones have not produced the results expected by Moscow, according to many accounts, so it remains to be seen if the increase in drone sales and their use will change this.