The Growing Threat Of Iran Regime’s Drone Industry – OpEd
By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
It is critical to examine and address the Iranian regime’s military unmanned aerial vehicle program, which has become a core pillar of the Islamic Republic’s terror activities and destabilizing behavior abroad.
The Iranian drone program is an important division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Although it dates back to the early 1980s, Tehran made major breakthroughs after 2010, when it became capable of capturing and reverse engineering several US drones.
The regime is known to provide drones to its militia and terror groups, including the Houthis in Yemen. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for several drone attacks. For example, in 2021, the terror group launched an explosive-laden drone toward a military airbase in the southern Saudi Arabian city of Khamis Mushait. It also claimed responsibility for the 2019 attacks on two Aramco plants located at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry — the world’s biggest oil processing facility at Abqaiq, near Dammam, and the country’s second-largest oilfield at Khurais. More than 40 drones and missiles were reportedly launched at Saudi Arabia by the Houthis in one month alone in 2021. The militia group has also attacked the UAE with drones, blowing up three oil tanker trucks and killing three people in Abu Dhabi last year.
The Iranian regime’s interest in the UAV industry for military purposes has grown significantly in the last decade, most likely due to the drones’ cost-effectiveness, the anonymity they offer, the espionage and intelligence-gathering opportunities they provide, and the magnitude of damage they can inflict. The commander of the IRGC’s drone division, Akbar Karimloo, acknowledged in a 2020 interview with Tasnim News: “It is expected that the UAVs will be the best weapon and system in the future and in the service of the world’s armed forces as well as the armed forces of our beloved country. With the least cost and loss, valuable information can be obtained from operational areas in the shortest possible time.”
In addition to nonstate actors, the Iranian regime is increasingly supplying drones to governmental military institutions. For example, Tehran has been supplying so-called kamikaze drones to Russia, leading the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to strip Iran’s ambassador in Kyiv of his accreditation and to reduce the Iranian Embassy’s diplomatic staff. The EU has also acknowledged that the Iranian regime is providing “military support for Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine,” via the “development and delivery of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Russia.” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “By enabling these strikes, these (sanctioned Iranian) individuals and a manufacturer have caused the people of Ukraine untold suffering.”
Iran’s leaders are attempting to project power and show that they possess the military capabilities to tip the balance of power in wars and conflicts in a specific direction. The Islamic Republic is now bragging that China is poised to become another customer of its domestically manufactured drones. A senior Intelligence Ministry official last week stated: “Our power has grown to levels where China is waiting in line to buy 15,000 of our drones.” He added: “Since the day we turned to the East, the West could not bear it and an example was the war in Ukraine.”
In the next phase of its dangerous UAV advancement and proliferation, the Iranian regime is attempting to set up drone assembly lines abroad to expedite the manufacturing process and make it more efficient, while promoting Tehran as a major player in the drone industry on the global stage.
The theocratic establishment is currently planning to establish a drone assembly line in Russia, according to US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. And the Wall Street Journal this month revealed that Tehran and Moscow are forging ahead with plans to construct “a new factory in Russia that could make at least 6,000 Iranian-designed drones for the war in Ukraine, the latest sign of deepening cooperation between the two nations.” The report added: “As part of their emerging military alliance … a high-level Iranian delegation flew to Russia in early January to visit the planned site for the factory and hammer out details to get the project up-and-running.”
The regime’s drone program is clearly not designed for peaceful purposes, but instead is for instigating instability and conflict. Iran’s drone armory includes the Shahed 129, which is believed to have the ability to carry eight missiles, fly for 24 hours and cover a range of 1,700 km, and the Mohajer-6, which “can be equipped with laser-guided missiles and different types of bombs to carry out offensive operations,” according to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics.
In a nutshell, the Iranian regime’s drone program, which is run by the IRGC, is a source of terror and instability in the region and worldwide. It is incumbent on the international community to level appropriate sanctions against the theocratic establishment of Iran in order to curb its advancement, proliferation and export of military UAVs to its allies, including terror and militia groups.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh