Tehran Eyes Drone Dominance in its Near-Abroad

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As Russia’s military invasion in Ukraine enters its eighth month, Moscow is steadily losing strategic superiority as Ukraine retakes lost territory through its tremendously successful counterattacks. Russia’s defeat along the Kharkiv-Lyman front and its retreat in Kherson, compounded by the difficulties of implementing its partial mobilization order, have diminished Moscow’s optimism regarding the war’s outcome. To rectify Russia’s increasingly weak strategic position and depleted weapons stockpiles, Moscow has turned to its long-term partners—namely China, Iran, and North Korea—to meet its needs for combat drones, modern artillery pieces, and ammunition.

Implausible Deniability

In July, the White House claimed that Iran was preparing to supply Russia with hundreds of weapons-capable drones for use in Ukraine. According to U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “information further indicates that Iran is preparing to train Russian forces to use these UAVs, with initial training sessions slated to begin as soon as early July.” These allegations caused an uproar in Ukraine and the West, though Tehran categorically denied the charge. American reports were confirmed in late-September, when Ukrainian forces shot down Iranian combat drones in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region, the southern city of Odesa, and the nearby Pivdennyi port. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry identified the downed aerial vehicles as Shahid-136 unmanned kamikaze drones and Mohajer-6 drones, which can carry missiles or perform reconnaissance missions.

Unlike Russian-made combat drones, Iranian kamikaze drones are relatively small and can travel long distances—up to 2,500 kilometers—at a maximum speed of 185 km/h. Iranian drones are often equipped with an explosive warhead and fly at a very low altitude, making them difficult for Ukrainian air-defense systems to detect. Indeed, in late September, one of the drones slipped past Ukrainian defenses and struck the Ukrainian navy’s headquarters in Odesa.

Iran has long invested in its national drone program to enhance its air power and provide force-multipliers to its proxy forces across the Middle East. Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels have utilized Iranian drone technology to great effect against the Islamic Republic’s regional rivals. The former has used Iranian drones to target Israel and penetrate its advanced missile-defense system, and the Houthis have conducted drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. Tehran is once again drawing from this playbook to supply Russian armed forces.

The first shipment of Iranian drones reportedly arrived in Russia on August 19, when Russian transport planes departed Iran containing “at least two types of unmanned aerial vehicles, both capable of carrying munitions for attacks on radars, artillery, and other military targets.” According to sources, the deal had been negotiated over several months by a team led by Brigadier General Seyed Hojjatollah Qureishi, the chief of the supply and logistics division of Iran’s Defense Ministry, and Russia’s military attache in Tehran. As a part of the agreement,Russian military officers traveled to Iran for training, and Iranian technical experts flew to Russia to set up the systems.

Eyes on Foreign Markets

Russia’s extensive use of Iranian Shahid drones against Ukrainian forces demonstrates a significant expansion of Tehran’s military reach beyond the Middle East. Simultaneously, using Iranian drones in Ukraine highlights the deficiencies of Russia’s own drone program, which has largely failed to produce effective combat drones in large numbers. Iranian drones, meanwhile, have proven their worth. Recent video footage showed Shahids destroying several Ukrainian targets.

While importing a large number of Iranian-made drones may fill a crucial munitions gap for Russia, Iran has its sights set on strengthening its military position and modernizing its own weaponry—an opportunity made even more exploitable by the expiration of the UN-imposed arms embargo in October 2020 as part of the JCPOA deal. Unlike Russia’s drone systems, Iranian-manufactured loitering munitions can reliably hit targets from long range. Russia has grown increasingly desperate to obtain this capability amid its dwindling stocks of ballistic missiles.

Iran’s efforts to arm Russia and its proxy forces in the Middle East suggest that Iran is keen to establish itself as a top arms exporter and compete with Turkey—a powerful geopolitical rival—for regional influence. By demonstrating its drones’ effectiveness in Ukraine, Iran can offer an alternative to Turkey’s famed Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. In fact, the relatively cheap and straightforward technology used in Iranian drones make them affordable for pariah states and other regional actors plagued with long-term domestic violence.

For now, Iran is a desirable military partner and arms exporter for Russia, given the latter’s serious supply shortages and terrible logistics management in Ukraine. In the words of U.S. Defense Department spokesperson Todd Breasseale, “Russia deepening their alliance with Iran is something that the whole world—and especially those in the region—should watch and see as a profound threat.” Although Iran’s official rhetoric claims that “Tehran is seeking a diplomatic settlement of the conflict in Ukraine,” its drone exports have made it a key actor, if not a de facto belligerent, in Moscow’s ongoing war.

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