Iran has stepped up the production of military-capable drones, delivering its technology to militant groups across the Middle East as well as to countries such as Venezuela and Sudan, the US has warned.
The New York Times cited Iranian media outlets, satellite images and US defense experts to suggest that Tehran is trying to increase its influence in the drone market.
Last week, Iranian state media quoted the head of the military, Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heydari, as saying Tehran is “ready to export weapons and military equipment to friendly countries,” and its drones are already “being operated far away and beyond our borders.”
Seth Frantzman, a drone expert and defense analyst, told the NYT: “Iran is increasingly becoming a global player in terms of drone exports. The fact that newer drones, such as the Mohajer-6 (a military-capable Iranian drone with a range of around 125 miles) are now being seen in places like the Horn of Africa, shows that countries see them as a potential game-changer.”
Iran’s drone program has increasingly concerned its regional rivals. Despite sanctions, Tehran has been able to produce a range of machines for both surveillance and offensive operations, to the point where Israel has targeted and sabotaged Iranian drone production facilities.
Iran still lags behind the likes of Turkey in drone production, however, with Ankara’s Bayraktar TB2 proving decisive on battlefields from Azerbaijan to Ethiopia in recent years.
In August 2020, though, a UN embargo on the purchase and sale of weapons by Iran expired, making it easier for the country to become a bigger player in the drone market.
On July 21, the US Department of Defense said the drone program was a key topic of conversation at a recent regional security conference in Qatar.
Since the lifting of the embargo, Iranian drones have been spotted in various military theaters, including the civil war in Ethiopia, where a Mohajer-6 was filmed behind Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during a visit to a military base, armed with air-to-surface missiles.
In February, the sale of Mohajer-6 drones to Venezuela was confirmed by Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, citing footage of President Nicolas Maduro standing next to one in 2020.
Venezuela’s Ministry of Defense later confirmed that the country had been purchasing an earlier model, the Mohajer-2, since 2007, when the UN arms embargo was imposed.
Iran has also supplied drones to Sudan, despite Khartoum also being subject to an arms embargo.
“The Islamic Republic has long reached mass production level in the production of various drones including military surveillance and suicide drones and now has a very large stock,” Iranian military analyst Hossein Dalirian told the NYT.
Tehran has been able to build a network of customers among nations and proxy groups, including in Yemen and Lebanon, outside the West’s sphere of influence.
That policy has included the offshoring of production to other countries, including Venezuela and Tajikistan.
Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, traveled to Tajikistan in May to inaugurate a factory making Ababil-2 drones — the first designated factory of Iranian drones abroad.
Tehran’s drones have been used extensively in attacks against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemen and Israel, as well as a US base in Syria in October last year.
Farzin Nadimi, a military analyst and associate fellow at the Washington Institute, told the NYT: “They (Iran) have created this viable drone capacity, so it is no surprise that other countries are interested in obtaining such technologies. Iranian drones should be taken seriously as a weapon.”