Iran has made steady advances in the design and production of military drones in recent years, and has stepped up their transfer to militant groups across the Middle East as it seeks to shift the dynamics of battlefields from Yemen to Gaza.
Those efforts have now extended far beyond the region.
Iran is now seeking to build its global clout and sell increasingly sophisticated weapons-capable drones commercially to other nations, including those that have been subject to various sanctions in recent years, like Venezuela and Sudan, according to Iranian news media, satellite images and defense experts inside and outside Iran.
That has provided an important source of funds and political influence for Iran, which is itself isolated and struggling under U.S. financial restrictions.
Now, Russia may be a potential client. Washington said this month that it had intelligence that Moscow planned to purchase hundreds of drones from Iran to bolster its arsenal for the war in Ukraine. U.S. officials have urged Iran not to sell drones to Russia and warned of consequences for both countries.
Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement that its military cooperation with Russia predated the war, without providing details, and its foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica in July that the country had no plans to provide military equipment to either side of the conflict.
Last week, the commander of Iran’s army, Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heydari, said in a speech that the country was “ready to export weapons and military equipment to friendly countries,” adding that Iranian drones were already “being operated far away and beyond our borders,” according to Iranian news media.
General Heydari did not mention Russia in his speech, but his comments came on the same day that President Vladimir V. Putin visited Tehran and met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who voiced support for the war in Ukraine.
“Iran is increasingly becoming a global player in terms of drone exports,” said Seth Frantzman, a Jerusalem-based defense analyst and drone expert.
“The fact that newer drones, such as the Mohajer-6, are now being seen in places like the Horn of Africa shows that countries see them as a potential game-changer,” he added, referring to an advanced Iranian drone claimed to have a range of about 125 miles and the ability to carry precision-guided munitions.
“It’s amazing warfare on the cheap,” said Mr. Frantzman, adding that Iranian drones cost less than other models on the market but were growing in sophistication, and had proved their worth on battlefields across the Middle East.
Tehran began drone development in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. Despite crippling sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear and missile programs in recent years, it has managed to produce and field a vast array of military drones, used for both surveillance and attack, according to analysis by experts.
That program has become a major concern for Israel and the United States in recent years. Israel has targeted drone production and storage sites in its escalating shadow war with Tehran. And the U.S. Department of Defense said in a statement on July 21 that “the Iran-proliferated network of attack unmanned aerial systems,” or drones, was a key topic of discussion at a recent regional security meeting in Qatar.
Iranian drones still remain largely on the margins of the global market, and are primarily bought by low-income or sanctions-hit countries unable to buy them elsewhere, according to Mr. Frantzman. Iran also faces stiff competition from powers like Turkey, whose Bayraktar TB2 drone has been bought by countries like Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Ethiopia, and has been embraced by Ukraine in its war with Russia.
A United Nations embargo aimed at preventing Iran from selling and buying weapons expired in 2020, despite protests from the United States, which wanted it extended, removing a significant legal obstacle, analysts said, for Iran to export its drones and carve out its status as a global player in drone technology.
An early sign that Iran was capitalizing on the lifting of the embargo and stepping up drone exports emerged in August last year.
In Ethiopia, as war raged with Tigrayan rebels, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed toured a military air base on the front line, flanked by military and intelligence officials. In the background, just visible in photos, online sleuths spotted a mysterious winged object sitting on the tarmac. It was an Iranian drone — a Mohajer-6 — armed with air-to-surface missiles.
Western diplomats confirmed Ethiopia’s receipt of Iranian drones to The New York Times, and this was later publicly acknowledged by the U.S. Treasury Department last October when they imposed fresh sanctions targeting Iran’s drone program.
In February, Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Israel said that Iran’s Mohajer-6 — the same drone model seen in Ethiopia — was also now being sold to Venezuela. He drew attention to footage from November 2020 that showed the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, standing next to a model of the drone during a speech in an aircraft hangar.
According to the Venezuelan defense ministry and U.S. officials, Venezuela began purchasing kits to make an earlier Iranian drone, the Mohajer-2, as long ago as 2007, the year the U.N. arms embargo was imposed on Iran. They were for assembly by the Venezuelan state-owned weapons company CAVIM, which was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2013 for trading in contravention of the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act.
In July this year, Mr. Maduro displayed armed Iranian combat drones built using Mohajer-2 assembly kits. Israel had accused Iran in February of providing precision-guided missiles to Venezuela for use in the drones.
Hossein Dalirian, a military analyst with close ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, posted a video on his YouTube channel in January in which he said that Iran was exporting drones to Ethiopia and Venezuela.
“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,” Mr. Dalirian said by direct message. “Because the drones are effective and some countries have been enthusiastic about the drones, in recent years Iran has been exporting drones such as New Mohajer-2 (M2-N) and Mohajer-6 (M6) and even Ababil (AB-2).”
Iran has supplied drones to Sudan, too, according to military analysts, satellite imagery, and photographic analysis of drone wreckage, although Khartoum is also subject to a U.N. arms embargo. In 2008, when U.N. peacekeepers inquired about combat drones they saw being used in Sudan, they were told these were a version of Iran’s Ababil-3.
Iran has both political and financial incentives to sell drones to such countries, as well as supplying them to proxy groups as part of its regional policy in the Middle East. The sales allow Tehran to build international links in defiance of Western efforts to isolate it, and provide an additional source of revenue alongside oil sold in contravention of sanctions.
In May, Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the commander in chief of Iran’s armed forces, traveled to Tajikistan to inaugurate a factory making Ababil-2 drones.
It’s the first drone factory that Iran has built abroad, and Iranian media covered the event extensively, hailing it as a milestone in the homegrown weapons development program and a sign that Iran was now a real player in the drone market.
The Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, said that Iran was “deepening its strategic influence in the east” by exporting the drones. The official newspaper of the government, Iran, wrote that “the successful experience of Iran’s weapons in the Middle East and in Ethiopia has resulted in Iran becoming a major exporter of weapons in the region and internationally.”
Iranian drones have been deployed in numerous attacks against Israel, as well as in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and, in October last year, a U.S. base in Syria, according to intelligence officials. Countries around the world have started to take notice.
“They have created this viable drone capacity, so it is no surprise that other countries are interested in obtaining such technologies,” said Farzin Nadimi, a military analyst and associate fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in Iran’s defense industry.
“Iranian drones should be taken seriously as a weapon,” he said.