Iran’s Drone Diplomacy: Enhancing Tehran’s Regional Competitiveness
Foreign drone sales present Iran with a unique and advantageous way to supply its proxies and diversify its relationships with regional states.
In mid-May, flanked by high-ranking officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri, chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, inaugurated the Islamic Republic’s first overseas unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturing facility in Tajikistan. Baqeri handed a symbolic golden key to the Tajik defense minister in Dushanbe. He described the facility inauguration as a “turning point” in military cooperation between the two nations.
Traditionally, senior Iranian military officials have spoken vaguely about Iran’s military hardware exports. Apart from arming and equipping Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq , Lebanon, and Yemen, Tehran claims to export armaments to more than 40 countries, some of which buy drones manufactured by the Islamic Republic.
Over the past decade, sporadic reports and images of Iran-sourced drones have emerged that detail their use in Syria, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Security sources say Iran even started sharing its drone manufacturing know-how with Venezuela in 2007. But before May 2022, Iran had never officially announced selling drones or inaugurated a drone manufacturing facility abroad.
The 2020 lifting of the UN-imposed, 13-year arms embargo on Iran, which was stipulated under the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers during the Obama administration, overturned all restrictions on Iranian arms imports and exports. This development granted Tehran the chance to focus on weapons sales and enter into defense consultations with some countries.
As such, this year’s Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition witnessed the Islamic Republic’s first participation in such an event in a foreign country, with some IRGC commanders in attendance. Iran’s display of its air defense systems and anti-ship weapons at the Doha show elicited criticism from the United States and Israel. When Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Tehran last month, in an unprecedented move, Iran’s minister of defense welcomed him at the airport. During official talks between the two countries, Iran’s defense minister was a constant presence. As a result of Maduro’s visit, Tehran and Caracas signed a 20-year comprehensive strategic cooperation pact. The two parties also reportedly reached an agreement to cooperate in unspecified “defense projects.”
Drone Sales and Iranian National Security Policy
The inauguration of the Iranian drone manufacturing plant in Tajikistan marks a turning point in Iranian national security policy because it represents Tehran’s first serious step toward realizing an official defense products export capacity. This objective falls in line with Iran’s consistent national strategy of pursuing security-cum-defense diplomacy with neighboring countries, as well as regional powers—chiefly China and Russia—to boost security cooperation. One year into office, the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi has looked to firm up this strategy within the framework of the “Look to the East” policy. The overarching goals of this policy—to defuse threats emanating from Washington and diversify the country’s international partnerships—are endorsed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As Abdolrasool Divsallar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute who is an expert in Iranian defense doctrine and security policy, remarked, “Iranian politicians have always been obsessed with the idea that…Iranian defense products could compete internationally. In the years before the JCPOA, the dominant idea was that [Iran] should consider arms exports as a post-JCPOA strategy. In other words, this idea and strategy is rooted in Iran’s defense corpus, which Iran has always sought a chance to realize it.”
Despite economic hardships and tough sanctions imposed on it by the West, the Islamic Republic launched its drone industry development project in the 1980s. In recent years, drones have played an instrumental role in wars, conflicts, and disputes across the globe. As such, Iran has since invested millions of dollars and proceeded relentlessly to enhance its capacity in this domain. Since the 2010s, Iran has viewed drones as a key tool of its own deterrence capability. The IRGC has long been the main administrator and operator of Iranian UAVs, but since a couple of years ago, Iran’s regular Army has also employed them.
Moreover, the IRGC have hunted and downed advanced U.S. drones on several occasions, including the RQ-170 Sentinel in 2011. The Iranian military has subsequently reverse-engineered these aerial vehicles, thereby enhancing Tehran’s own drone manufacturing technology. American officials have acknowledged that Iranian efforts have enabled the country to shoot to prominence among leading drone manufacturers, namely the United States, Israel, China, and Turkey.
Israeli investigative journalist Seth J. Frantzman, in his best-known book Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (2021), puts it as follows: “The battle for the skies in the wake of Iran’s downing of the Sentinel moved from a world that had one drone superpower to multiple drone makers. This fundamentally changed the equation and the threats that drones could pose. Iran’s goal was to create an independent drone army, much as Israel had done in the 1980s, providing Tehran with impunity Washington had previously enjoyed.”
Iran’s drone development has progressed to the point that its arch-foe, Israel has labeled Tehran’s advancement as a “significant threat.” As such, Israel has allegedly conducted a series of clandestine operations inside Iran that targeted Iranian scientists and facilities involved in Iranian drone projects. Israel’s anxiety seems justified, as these drones can evade the country’s sophisticated anti-missile systems. In 2018, Israel downed an Iranian-made drone within its airspace and discovered that the platform had been engineered to mimic U.S. designs. Also in early July, Israel claimed it had shot down three UAVs launched by Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah headed towards an offshore gas field in the Mediterranean
Political Leverage & Economic Opportunities
Iran has demonstrated its ability to use drones as a powerful geopolitical tool to show off its power and spread its influence throughout the Middle East and further afield. By equipping its regional allies with a variety of drones, the Islamic Republic has developed an integrated drone network. It has also skillfully used its homegrown drones as leverage over its regional rivals, forcing them to bargain with Tehran or tone down their hostility toward the Islamic Republic. Analysts claim that the September 2019 drone strike on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq, which was claimed by Iran-allied Houthi militants, has raised eyebrows among Western intelligence services. The attack was probably the most important factor in persuading Riyadh to consider dialogue with Iran as advantageous to its interests.
Persian-speaking nations Iran and Tajikistan started developing close ties in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Though relations between the countries turned sour in 2015, since 2019 their ties have seen significant improvement. The emergence of new security challenges in the region—chief among them terrorism and the Taliban’s comeback to power in Afghanistan—have driven the two countries to establish closer defense and security ties.
The inauguration of a defense industry production line, including drone manufacturing, in Tajikistan, has further deepened ties, indicating that Iran is genuinely determined to broaden its military and defense cooperation with other nations. It also signals Tehran’s desire to evade or counter international sanctions under the aegis of “drone diplomacy.” Tasnim news agency, an organization affiliated with the IRGC, echoed this sentiment in a recent commentary: “Developing the drone diplomacy now represents a key pillar of the Islamic Republic’s defense diplomacy. In case the current trend goes on, Iran can be recognized as a key player in drone exports thanks to its significant and remarkable defense industry achievements while being subject to sanctions.” Mehdi Bakhtiari, who serves as the chief editor of Tasnim’s political and military desk, told the author that “Iran is among few nations to have mastered the knowhow to design, manufacture and use these drones…In light of the heavy investment Iran has made in recent years and given the diversity of drones we are observing now, I think it has the potential to constitute the best military export basket for Iran.”
While Iran is already exporting its military capabilities, the inauguration of a drone manufacturing facility in Tajikistan shows that the country is seeking to expand its influence further eastward and expand its footprint in this sector. However, pundits speak with guarded optimism when it comes to the success of this strategy. It is unclear whether Iran’s “drone diplomacy” will enhance the country’s political clout within Central Asia. Mr. Divsallar explains the challenge Iran faces. “In Middle East nations, due to Russia’s security dominance and Iran’s reluctance to enter into conflict with Russia in Central Asia, Iran’s drone diplomacy can help boost its political clout to a certain extent. Russia however, wields much clout [in this region]. I think that the motivation for political influence is limited for now and has limited capacity.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s growing rivalries with other regional states have further incentivized the Islamic Republic to step up its transfer of drone manufacturing technology to Tajikistan. Turkey has delivered Bayraktar TB2 drones to Azerbaijan; the Bayraktar drones proved instrumental in changing the outcome of the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ankara has recently signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to start co-producing Turkey’s Anka drones in Kazakhstan. Israel has also reportedly supplied Azerbaijan with “Kamikaze drones” and signed deals to supply drones to some countries in the region.
There exists no exact information about the details of costs of manufacturing and technical specifications of the drones held in Iran’s arsenals. But Mr. Bakhtiari, who gets first-hand information about the hidden aspects of Iran’s military industry, said: “The defense equipment manufactured by the Islamic Republic is not limited to drones; rather they include missiles, anti-tank gear, and other hardware at cost prices much lower than foreign-made ones…The most important factor is the low price of Iranian products, while quality has been taken into account…These products are efficient enough.” In fact, such cost-effectiveness may prove attractive to would-be buyers who balk at the high training and maintenance costs of weapons systems produced by more powerful and established arms-producing states. Indeed, these factors may hand Iran a competitive edge in the arms sales markets of developing states in Asia and Africa, where governments cannot afford expensive high-tech armament but require such capabilities.
Bakhtiari said Iranian drones are on par in terms of efficiency and reliability with Turkish models, adding: “Despite the proven efficacy of Iranian drones on the battlefield, Iran has failed to fare effectively in promoting, showcasing, and supplying its products.”
Although Iran has shown its potential in exporting drones, outperforming rivals like Turkey in the export market is dependent on other key factors, mainly the full lifting of U.S. sanctions against Tehran. In April, the United States House of Representatives passed the bipartisan “Stop Iranian Drones Act,” which would ban “supporting the supply, sale or transfer to or from Iran of UAVs, or providing other assistance related to UAVs.” The legislation has already been cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meaning that the Act could soon become a law once passed by the Senate and signed by President Joe Biden. To make matters worse for Tehran, The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington planned to impose a raft of new sanctions against Tehran in reaction to Western governments’ growing concerns over Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities.
Foreign drone sales present Iran with a unique and advantageous way to supply its proxies and diversify its relationships with regional states. Compared with missiles, which are inherently offensive in nature, drones elicit less resistance from neighboring countries, as they can be used for reconnaissance, combating drug trafficking, policing, and non-military purposes. Therefore, drones could also form a pillar of Iran’s government-level cooperation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.