Iran is emerging as a drone superpower

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A Shot down Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone allegedly used by Russia’s armed forces near Kupiansk in the north-eastern region of Kharkiv [@UAWeapons/Twitter]

The advent of Turkiye’s Bayraktar TB2 combat drone has undeniably propelled the country to superpower status, at least when it comes to the manufacture and supply of unmanned aerial vehicles. The prevalence of Turkish drones in various conflicts from North Africa to the Caucasus has certainly helped to boost Turkiye’s reputation as a major arms exporter. TB2s have been used extensively in Libya and Syria where they are described as game-changing. However, it was the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan which really raised the international profile of Turkiye’s drones and their devastating capabilities, to the extent that the Bayraktars have become the “most famous” drones of all and are now synonymous with conflict videos shared on social media.

The most recent and high profile conflict wherein TB2s have been used is Ukraine where they have been very effective against Russian forces and assets. Turkish manufacturer Baykar Technology is currently working on the TB2’s successor, the TB3, a naval drone which is expected to make its first flight by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the high-altitude, long-range Akinci drone has already caught the attention of foreign militaries, with four export agreements signed to date.

Nevertheless, the initial successes of the TB2 in Ukraine have been curtailed, if not overshadowed, by the arrival of Iranian drones, which were first rumoured by US intelligence to have been supplied to Russia over the summer. Although not officially acknowledged by either Moscow or Tehran, it is widely accepted that Iranian Shahed-136 “kamikaze” drones were used to target Ukraine’s cities and energy infrastructure last month. There is mounting evidence of their existence, such that Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian admitted earlier this month that Tehran had, in fact, supplied the drones to Russia, but before the Ukraine war.

READ: Iran ‘plans to ship more weapons to Russia’

Relatively-speaking, the Iranian drones are much cheaper than TB2s, costing around $20,000 per unit compared with $5 million, and the Shahed-136 and 131 have been used extensively by the Russians. There have also been sightings of the more advanced Shahed-129 and Mohajer-6.

Despite the criticism aimed at Iran for supplying drones to Russia, it has also benefitted from the conflict in Ukraine, which “offers a way to enjoy a more equitable relationship with a great power”. It also offers “an environment in which Russia is subsidising Iran’s military experimentation, making the process not only free for Iran but potentially profitable.”

According to Iran, some 22 countries have submitted official requests to purchase their drones including Armenia, Tajikistan, Serbia, Algeria and Venezuela. The Iranians have had a drone programme since the 1980s and have an established domestic military industry. This exports arms or technical know-how to Iran’s regional partners in the Axis of Resistance, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Houthi movement in Yemen and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.

However, Iran’s ambitions to replicate the commercial successes of Turkiye’s drone exports will be hampered due to western-imposed sanctions. According to Forbes, “Iran will have to settle for a much more limited market consisting of other pariah states and cash-strapped countries with little to no viable alternatives.” As a cheaper, more primitive alternative, the Shahed series of drones are unlikely to become “game-changing” in conflict zones, even while proving to be tactically and cost effective.

Crucially for Iran, the gradual proliferation of their drones in theatres of conflict helps to expand Tehran’s geopolitical influence. This has been evident with the inauguration of an Iranian drone factory in Tajikistan in May, which will produce the combat and reconnaissance Ababil-2 drones. Coupled with future plans for Russia to manufacture Iranian drones locally, Iran is presenting itself as an alternative supplier of drones across the wider Central Asia region in direct competition with Turkey, which has its own ambitions to reach out to the Turkic world. Iranian drones will continue to feature in conflicts, especially following their growing prominence in Ukraine.

They will also become increasingly sophisticated and lethal, although development may be hindered by sanctions. In any case, without the restrictions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), “Iran can now purchase and sell conventional weaponry, including drones, which opens up the path for Iran to become a rival to Western and Transatlantic countries for military exports.” If Iran is able to capitalise on these export opportunities, it will be well on its way to joining Turkey as a drone superpower, no longer limited to supplying drones to non-state actors in proxy wars, but also with more high-profile state customers like Russia.

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Disclaimer: Iran is emerging as a drone superpower - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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