Russia-Ukraine war: The rise of Iran's drone industry
The buzz of Iranian-made drones has become a familiar sound across Ukrainian towns and cities as Russia steps up attacks across the country, destroying power plants and civilian and military infrastructure.
With Russian stockpiles of missiles dwindling fast, Moscow has turned to Iran to quickly and cost-effectively stall Ukrainian military advances and loss of further territory.
'Iran developed its missile and drone programme to compensate for the lack of an effective air force'
- Hamidreza Azizi, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Reports suggest that Russia has bought several hundred Iranian drones, with another 1,000 ordered. For their part, Moscow and Tehran have denied that such transactions have occurred.
However, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a nod to their potential use in Ukraine, boasted about the country's drone programme.
In the past, people doubted Iranian technology, calling it fake, Khamenei said. "Now they say Iranian drones are dangerous. Why do you sell them to so-and-so?"
A pro-Kremlin Russian military expert, Ruslan Pukhov, appeared on live TV without realising that the microphone was already on and blurted out the country's worst-kept secret: "We all know they're Iranian, but the government won't admit it," he said.
Since their debut in early September, Iranian drones have given Russia an effective tool on the battlefield in Ukraine. According to Ukraine's defence ministry, at least 300 Iranian Shahed 136 kamikaze drones have been used to destroy much of the country's network of power stations in the past two weeks.
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.
A national priority
Iran's mastery of drones has been a national priority for decades, which authorities have nurtured and stewarded despite its sanctioned economy.
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.
Iran's use of Ababil either as loitering munition or for surveillance and reconnaissance underscored a military imperative to preserve limited resources, both human capital and its air force, which was dependent on US firms for maintenance that was no longer available.
In the decades since, "the Iranian drone programme has been devised as an integral part of the country's military", said Azizi.
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.
'It's only in the last 10 years that drone development has really taken off in Iran. And it's partly due to Iran acquiring an American drone that was downed over the country'
- Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Durham University
"Iran developed its missile and drone programme to compensate for the lack of an effective air force," said Azizi, adding that "indigenous development started to take precedence in Iran's military thinking".
The increasing prominence of drones in Iranian strategic thinking has largely taken off in the past few years, said Professor Anoush Ehteshami from Durham University and the author of Defending Iran: From Revolutionary Guards to Ballistic Missiles.
"It's always been Iran's missile programme which has taken centre stage because of the deterrence value, particularly towards Israel," Ehteshami told MEE. "It's only in the last 10 years that drone development has really taken off in Iran. And it's partly due to Iran acquiring an American drone that was downed over the country."
Iran's ability to knock a few American drones out of the sky has benefited its drone technological know-how. Moreover, the country's scientists have been nothing if not industrious in learning from its adversaries.
In 2011 the Iranian armed forces downed an intact RQ-170 Sentinel US drone, which they reverse-engineered within one year, and they ultimately produced their own version, a skill they have honed since the 1980s.
"Iran has been developing its reverse technology expertise in the last few decades," said Ehteshami. "You give them more or less anything, and their engineers and scientists, particularly in the military-industrial complex, can then take it apart and find ways of putting it back together again."
Iran now boasts a fleet of drones capable of precision-guided missiles with a 2,000km range, in addition to a bunch of surveillance drones.
A new dawn
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, said Ehteshami, but they are effective.
"Over the last decade, Iranian drones have taken off big time. Iran now has a very complicated and complex range of drones that it uses for surveillance but also increasingly for delivery of munitions, jamming radars, moving things around and for swarming, as they've done in the Persian Gulf."
The Shahed 136, also known as a swarming drone, which is now widely used in Ukraine, only underlines how far Iran has come in establishing itself as a drone tech powerhouse.
Introduced officially by Iran in 2021, the Shahed 136's aim is to bypass an adversary's air defence systems and overwhelm ground forces. It carries a warhead weighing around 35kg. It's sometimes known as a "kamikaze" drone, for flying directly into a target.
Another advanced lethal combat UAV in the Iranian arsenal is the Shahed 129, which has been combat tested in various theatres in the Middle East, including Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf region.
Driven by the realisation that it can't confront the US head-on, Iran has ploughed its limited resources into building "large scale, relatively rudimentary and inexpensive but effective drones", according to Thomas Juneau, from the University of Ottawa.
Juneau, an expert in Iranian foreign policy, told MEE that Tehran's UAV development is also a result of its resourceful ability to build a "vast, covert global smuggling network", allowing the sanction-hit country to "obtain parts and technologies, some dual use, from throughout the world, including European countries".
Even as US and European authorities have tried to clamp down on such illicit activities, their efforts are often akin to a game of whack-a-mole.
"Even though these various drones are less advanced than US drones, Iran has shown that it can transfer them to partners, such as the [Yemeni] Houthis (and now also Russia), who can then use them for a variety of purposes such as crashing into adversaries' air defences or into civilian areas," said Juneau.
While the genesis of the Iranian drone programme was spurred by the need to defend the home front, with time they have become a useful addition in reinforcing Tehran's network of alliances with other states and non-state actors.
Earlier this year, Iran opened its first drone factory in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan to produce and export Ababil-2, a variant of one of its earliest drones.
Tajikistan, a majority Sunni Muslim country, is run by a staunchly secular regime, with authorities banning hijabs in state institutions and running regular campaigns forcing men to shave their beards, a marked contrast to Iranian rules governing society.
However, if nothing else, Iran is a pragmatic state. Tajikistan allows Tehran to improve its bilateral relations while developing its drone programme away from potential Israeli sabotage.
"One reason Iran has cooperated with Tajikistan on drone production is their shared security concerns over the Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan," said Eric Lob, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University.
'The extent to which the Iranians' support for the Houthis in this area made a difference has been extremely significant'
- Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics
"Iran has [also] used its drone industry to strengthen relations with state actors like Venezuela, Ethiopia and Russia, especially after the UN arms embargo against it expired in October 2020," Lob told MEE.
Tehran's drone cooperation with Russia dates back to at least 2016, when a senior Iranian general mentioned that Moscow had asked for assistance in getting its programme off the ground.
Iranian policymakers have also not been averse to providing their drone technology to regional non-state actors in the region.
"Iran and its partners and proxies in Syria and Iraq have used its drones, technology and training to surveil and strike American allies and assets, as well as extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS [the Islamic State group]," said Lob.
One of the strengths of Iranian drones, believes Lob, is that they can offer "affordable alternatives and similar tactical advantages to state and non-state actors inside and outside of the Middle East, with budgetary constraints and weak-to-non-existent air power".
In places like Yemen, "Iranian drone technology was a game-changer", said Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based political risk consultancy.
Dramatic drone attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have brought the Saudi war in Yemen into its own territory, with the country's energy facilities becoming a frequent target.
"The extent to which the Iranians' support for the Houthis in this area made a difference has been extremely significant. The Houthi drone attacks deep into Saudi territory have been an enormous source of leverage for the Iran-backed rebels in Yemen," Cafiero told MEE.
The future of Iranian drones
Even as Iran has marched ahead with its drone development programme, Israel, the country's principal regional adversary, has sought to counter it.
Israel has used northern Iraq as a springboard to attack Iranian drone facilities, which Iranian missile strikes have sought to deter from happening again. Last week, closer to home, Israel bombed an Iranian drone assembly plant in Syria.
But it's the war in Ukraine that has put Iranian drones to the test and is likely to result in its hardware becoming more marketable.
In coming to Russia's aid in Ukraine, Iran isn't just looking to profit from the sale of drones or deepen its relationship with the country.
"Urgent Iranian assistance to an important, proven impotent, ally is aimed at preventing a humiliating defeat for both Putin and Russia, and set what was perceived as 'Nato's aspirations to expand eastward' to rest," Farzin Nadimi, a Washington-based analyst specialising in the security and defence affairs of Iran and the Persian Gulf region, told MEE.
US generals have warned against the potency of Iranian drones in recent years. Advances in Iranian drone technology have meant that Tehran could enjoy "localised air superiority".
"For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority," one general told Congress.
In becoming involved in the Ukrainian conflict, Iran is also seeking to "project itself as an equal partner with Russia in the new 'multipolar world order'", Nadimi told MEE.
With Russia facing sanctions similar to those that Iran has had to contend with for the last few decades, Tehran is now looking to further synchronise relations with Moscow to boost its own resilience.
'While Iran's drones don't yet have a significant economic value, they do have a massive political value'
- Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Durham University
Earlier this year, a $40bn energy deal between Iran's Ministry of Petroleum and Russia's Gazprom pointed to a relationship entering a new phase and a broader anti-US front in Eurasia.
It is also believed to be somewhat ironic that Russia, which voted in favour of several United Nations Security Council resolutions in lockstep with the West between 2006 and 2010 that deepened Iran's economic woes, has now turned to Iran for military and financial assistance.
"Iran hopes that at some point the Russians will reciprocate and provide it with some military hardware that Iran has always asked for - the advanced fighter jets, the SU 35 for example, or the more advanced air defence systems," said Hamidreza Azizi from SWP.
While continued sanctions on Iran will limit drone sales, the Ukraine war is likely to do for Iranian drones what the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict did for Turkish drones, namely, to prove that they are capable and effective in state-to-state conflicts.
Iran hasn't managed to break through as a reliable weapons supplier, said Durham University's Ehteshami, but "Russia's use of this might change that image".
"While Iran's drones don't yet have a significant economic value, they do have a massive political value. The more the world sees its military strength, the more these folks feel comfortable in Tehran. And, of course, for Iran, it is part and parcel of its deterrent strategy."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.