In February 2022, Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine transformed Europe’s traditional security architecture and understanding of its engagement with potential adversaries. While the conflict continues to inflict grave losses on both sides, Moscow’s shockingly poor military performance on the battleground has resulted in heavy tactical losses for the Kremlin since the war’s inception. The enormous blunders, the depletion of stores of ammunition, and a lack of sophisticated military technology have pushed Russia to turn to its long-time partners for military supplies. Indeed, Russia found Iran as one of the most reliable partners, due to its indigenously manufactured loitering munitions and Shahed and Mohajer combat drones.
Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict—more or less openly in concert with Russia—has triggered widespread anger and further economic sanctions from the international community. However, its transfer of military aid to Moscow has also demonstrated the effectiveness of Tehran’s kamikaze drones. Iran has long made significant strategic investments in its national drone program in the hope that it may become one of the predominant drone powers in the Middle East and curb the military dominance of the United States and Israel at a comparatively low cost. According to intelligence reports, Iran has provided Russia with dozens of kamikaze drones and military instructors since July 2022, which Russia has increasingly used to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and cities. Iran’s domestic drone production has alarmed Israel and other U.S. allies, but the low price and demonstrated effectiveness of these drones in Ukraine has given Tehran a growing list of potential customers around the world.
Scraping the Barrel?
According to the Iranian government, some 22 countries have submitted official requests to purchase their drones, including Armenia, Tajikistan, Serbia, Algeria, and Venezuela. Although Iranian drones have performed well in Ukraine, they are still undoubtedly vulnerable to Western-made modern air defense systems. For this reason, Iran will have to settle for a much more limited market consisting of other pariah states and cash-strapped countries unable to afford high-end Western drones. Moreover, Iranian drones based on primitive defense technologies are unlikely to become game-changers in the region against more sophisticated Israeli and Turkish-made drone systems.
Nonetheless, Tehran is now engaged in opportunistic behavior in fragile regions around the globe, and Tehran has particularly attempted to market its products in the Balkans. Historically regarded as one of the most volatile regions in Europe, the Balkans may face a new wave of deadly escalation with Iranian drones’ entrance into the local arms market. In particular, Iran has attempted to strengthen its ties to Serbia, which has historically dominated the former Yugoslavia. In December 2022, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian paid an official visit to Belgrade to meet Serbian President Alexander Vucic. The visit was a significant milestone as it emphasized the degree to which Tehran’s ambitions go far beyond the Gulf region—and hinted at ways that the Balkan region could remain open for Iranian influence. Through its exports of UAVs, Tehran has signaled that it is capable and ready to exploit the region’s vulnerability to advance its own aims.
With growing demand from Russia amid its war against Ukraine, the Iranian UAV industry has experienced a significant boost in recent months. The deployment of Shahed drones in Ukraine enabled Iran to test their effectiveness, and its ties with Russia and other Russian-allied states have allowed it to expand its global network of manufacturing lines. Iran’s opportunistic approach to drone export would set a perilous precedent if Serbia were to acquire these weapons systems. The situation in the Balkans has grown tense in recent years, and its security dynamics have been overshadowed by the arms race between Serbia and Croatia. Serbia in particular has emerged as the region’s most prolific military spender; prior to its purchase of Iranian drones, Belgrade acquired Chinese-made CH-92A drones with a 250-kilometer combat range in June 2020. This acquisition significantly increased Serbian air-policing capabilities and amplified calls for the development of its own national drone program.
However, the slow progress of its domestic drone program piles additional pressure on Serbia to seek cheap Iranian drones amid rising tensions in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. For this reason, if its deal with Tehran comes to fruition, Belgrade will become the largest military drone operator in the Balkans. Belgrade’s willingness to acquire Iranian drones, emphasized by its recent talks with Tehran, has stirred concerns in Europe that Serbia may conduct a military offensive against Kosovo, which Belgrade continues to regard as a rebellious province rather than an independent state. In this vein, Iran’s inroads into the Serbian defense market would disrupt the delicate long-term balance in the fractured, if semi-frozen conflict. Unsurprisingly, Belgrade has officially denied allegations regarding the acquisition of Iranian drones, claiming that Iran is not among Serbia’s military partners.
When analyzing the influence of Iran and its drone program, two main factors must be noted. First, Tehran has the desire to curb Turkish, Israel, and Western influence and emerge as a leading drone supplier, helping to bring in hard foreign currency and provide for internal economic stability. Second, by supplying and testing its drones abroad, Tehran can potentially expand its proxy warfare capabilities beyond the traditional scene of the Middle East as a destabilizing tool.
The gradual Western departure from the Balkans and deteriorating relations with Serbia have clearly pushed Belgrade toward the rising Iran-China-Russia axis. The falling-out between Brussels and Belgrade culminated with Serbia’s recent sizable purchase of Russian-made weaponry, including Mig-29 fighter jets, Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters, T-72MS tanks, and Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft missile systems. For this reason, the West urgently needs to revitalize its approach toward the volatile Balkan region to prevent the solidification of pro-Iranian and pro-Russian camps and avoid the humanitarian disaster—and the potential spillover effect—that could occur as a result of a Serbian military offensive against Kosovo.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.