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Iran’s “Game of Drones” in the Middle East

Amid mounting domestic unrest and ongoing diplomatic standoffs with regional states, Iran has devoted a significant and increasing amount of national resources toward upgrading its national drone program. On May 17, the Iranian government officially inaugurated its first overseas drone factory in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; the facility manufactures the indigenous Ababil-2, a multipurpose drone model with reconnaissance, combat, and suicide capabilities. The Ababil-2 boasts a maximum range of 200 kilometers and can sustain roughly 90 minutes of flight time. The new drone factory will help Iran to improve relations with Tajikistan after a period of lingering diplomatic tension, and General Mohammad Bagheri described its inauguration as a turning point in bilateral military cooperation between the two countries.

The current era of Iranian-Tajik cooperation marks a drastic improvement from the diplomatic nadir  the two countries’ reached two years ago, when the government of Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon accused Iran of “funding militant opposition activity in Tajikistan.” The two countries’ surprisingly rapid rapprochement can be primarily attributed to regional geopolitical factors—particularly the abrupt collapse of the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan in August 2021, which led to a power vacuum on both countries’ borders and paved the way for the reconciliation of bilateral relations. Therefore, the inauguration of the drone factory can be seen as the culmination of the ongoing thaw, with significant benefits expected for both sides. For Tajikistan, the Iranian drone factory will allow it to gain access to advanced Iranian military technology and technical know-how for further military purposes, though Iran is unlikely to replace Russia, which has several thousand troops deployed within Tajikistan, as Dushanbe’s primary security partner.

In this vein, the new drone factory in Tajikistan will also help to facilitate bilateral military cooperation and enable Tehran to conduct joint military drills with Tajikistan—drills likely targeted at containing radical extremist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, which gained security in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s conquest last year. At the same time, the drone fleet produced in Tajikistan will likely be used for reconnaissance purposes in Afghanistan, something that Iran has done long before. Tehran’s new inroads into Tajikistan’s defense sector have come at the same time that Russia has been distracted by the war in Ukraine. With the imposition of international economic and political sanctions, Moscow may soon face new challenges in Central Asia, which it considers its geopolitical backyard.

Drone Development

Interestingly, Iran did not attempt to keep its new drone factory in Tajikistan a secret, even though Tehran has been particularly cautious about its national drone program and has historically kept nearly all information about it highly classified. In spite of these precautions, Israeli intelligence revealed in 2021 that Iran had made substantial progress in its national drone program and increased the lethality of its unmanned weapons platforms, citing a series of drone attacks on ships in the Gulf of Oman and military operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2021.

The further development of Iran’s drone program in recent years allowed it to produce a number of new classes of drones, such as the Shahid, Qasef, Mohajer, Samad, Ababeel, and, most recently, the Kaman, which is modeled on the U.S.-made MQ-1 Predator and advanced MQ-9 Reaper. There are indications that Iran does not intend to keep these new platforms for itself. Since 2018, a growing body of evidence has demonstrated that Iran has transferred some of its drones to its proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq through the Quds Force—the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). After several years of steady development, Tehran seeks to use its drone program to bring the entire region within striking range.

The new drone factory will likely bolster Iran’s image as a drone manufacturer and give opportunities to export indigenously-made drones. Iran is known to have exported its drone technology to Venezuela several years ago, and it appears to have sold drones to Ethiopia during its war against the rebellious Tigray province in 2020. Given U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran and Tehran’s second-grade drone technology, it is unclear how many states would be willing to import Iranian-made combat drones. Moreover, unlike its regional rival Turkey, Iran commands a comparatively small share of the global military drone market, with an estimated value of $11.25 billion in 2021.

Beyond Mossad’s Reach?

Another critical reason for Iran’s decision to open its drone factory overseas may be linked to its concerns about Israeli intelligence services’ recent operations against the Iranian military, nuclear facilities, and prominent scientists on its soil. The first major attack in 2022 occurred on February 14 at an Iranian military airfield in Kermanshah that houses an unmanned aerial vehicle fleet. While Iranian authorities did not reveal the source of the explosion, unofficial sources claimed that it had been a successful sabotage operation by Israeli security forces.

The sensitive nature of the Kermanshah base could be seen in Iran’s reaction—or lack thereof—to the incident; unlike previous explosions in June 2021 and July 2020 targeting nuclear facilities in Tehran and Isfahan,  Iranian officials did not issue any inflammatory statements regarding the February 14 explosion. A second mysterious explosion rocked the highly sensitive Parchin military site outside Tehran, where Iran develops missile and drone technology; it was followed shortly by the mysterious assassination of the Iranian aerospace engineer Ayoob Entezari, who was working at a local drone-producing factory.

As such, Iran’s decision to inaugurate its drone factory in Tajikistan should not come as a surprise, since Dushanbe could be a safe haven to manufacture Iranian drones. Tajikistan is beyond the traditional scene of operations of Israeli intelligence services, and the country’s territory may give Iran welcome breathing room to develop its drone program in relative safety.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.


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