September 7, 2022

IntelBrief: Drones Become Pivotal to Iran’s National Security Strategy

Iranian Army via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • Iranian leaders increasingly view unmanned aerial systems (UAS, or “drones”) as pivotal to Iran’s national security strategy.
  • Regional states share concerns about the use of Iranian UAS but the United States and Israel appear able to counter Iran’s armed UAS.
  • Iran’s armed drone capabilities have expanded to the point where Russia has turned to Iran to supply UAS that it needs for the war in Ukraine.
  • Iran’s delivery of sophisticated drones to Russia indicates that Iran and Russia are developing a stronger strategic relationship.

In recent years, Iran has poured substantial resources into the development of increasingly sophisticated armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS, or “drones”) as a force multiplier for its national security strategy. Iran has used armed drones launched from Iranian territory in successful attacks on regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia, including a highly effective October 2019 attack on energy infrastructure in the Kingdom. In November 2021, armed drones supplied by Iran to pro-Iranian Shia militia forces in Iraq attacked the home of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, injuring seven of his guards, although he survived the assassination attempt unscathed. Iran-supplied armed drone technology has enabled the Houthi movement in conflict-ridden Yemen to project power against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), contributing to decisions by the two Gulf powers to accept an extended ceasefire in the Yemen conflict. Cohosting a UN Security Council “Arria formula” meeting on the threats posed by transnational terrorist groups, the UAE and Kenya reportedly claimed in the concept note that the growing use of emerging technologies like UAS renders the terrorist threat more pressing than ever. Later this year, India, which chairs the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, is organizing a special meeting in India which will also focus on UAS.

While regional states share concerns about the use of Iranian UAS by the regional proxies it supports, Iran’s armed UAS have proved relatively ineffective against more technologically sophisticated powers such as the United States and Israel. Armed drone attacks by Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq have caused minimal, if any, damage to U.S.-manned bases in both countries, in large part because American forces have generally been able to intercept the systems. On August 24, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed groups in Syria in retaliation for a largely ineffective August 15 armed drone attack on two U.S. bases in Syria that was reportedly launched by allied Iraqi militias operating in southern Iraq. Iran-supplied armed UAS fielded by Lebanese Hezbollah have had few measurable successes in attacking Israeli territory, generally getting shot down before crossing over into Israeli airspace. In July, Israel downed three Hezbollah-launched surveillance drones well short of their approach to a gas rig operating in Israel-claimed waters off the coast of south Lebanon.

Despite these failures, Iran’s success in developing and using armed drones has generated interest in other countries to acquire the systems. Iranian exports of armed drones provide an additional source of much-needed revenue and helps Iran expand its alliances. In 2021, Iran began selling armed UAS to Ethiopia, which the government has used in its war against Tigray rebels. Other customers have included Venezuela, which, like Iran, is extensively sanctioned by the United States, as well as Sudan, only recently removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism . Exemplifying the growing market for its UAS products, in May 2022, Iran inaugurated a factory in Tajikistan that will manufacture the Iran-designed Ababil-2 armed drone for export.

A major issue for the United States, particularly as it seeks to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion, is the confirmation in August that Russia has received delivery of Iranian armed UAS. Ukrainian, American, and European military officials have commented publicly that Russia’s armed drone capabilities are relatively limited - particularly for a major power - and Russia is known to have expended large percentages of its stockpiles of artillery shells, missiles, and precision-guided munitions to achieve the relatively limited gains it has on the Ukraine battlefield. In late July, media reports surfaced that Russian forces had begun training on the use of Iranian-made armed drones. On August 30, U.S. officials publicly confirmed that Russia purchased and transferred the Iran-made Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series armed drones (Shahed-129 and Shahed-191) back to Russia. Both types of UAS are reportedly capable of carrying precision-guided munitions and can be used for surveillance. It has not been announced how many of the systems Russia has received to date, but U.S. officials believe that Russia intends to import hundreds of them to use for air-to-surface attacks, electronic warfare, and targeting inside Ukraine. Analysts assess that Russia wants to use the system to better target and destroy Ukraine’s arsenal of U.S.-supplied HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) weaponry that Ukraine has used to significant effect in blunting Russia’s advances in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.

U.S., Israeli, and U.S.-allied Arab leaders are more broadly concerned that the Russian purchase of Iran-made armed drones signals a deepening of ties between Tehran and Moscow. The strategic dialogue between Iran and Russia had already been expanding over the past decade to include the possible Iranian purchase of Russian combat systems to modernize Iran’s aging conventional arsenal. Since 2016, in anticipation of the October 2020 expiration of a U.N. embargo on the transfer of arms to Iran, Iranian and Russian defense officials have been discussing an Iranian buy of Russian-made tanks, combat aircraft, ships, artillery, and other systems, although no concrete sale agreement has been announced to date. The imposition of U.S. and European sanctions on Russia because of the invasion has brought Iran and Russia into close alignment to denounce sanctions as a Western policy tool. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran and received public backing from Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, who stated that the West’s policies had left the Kremlin “no choice but to react [by invading Ukraine].” The two countries are also cooperating on oil production issues in the context of the “OPEC+” forum, and Russia will benefit financially from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel if talks to revive the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal are successful. Yet, Iranian strategists have always been shrewd calculators of power dynamics, and they have substantial doubts about the value of Russia as a big power protector, judging from Russia’s difficulties on the Ukraine battlefield - difficulties that have brought Moscow in as a customer for Iran’s UAS.