I.In April, US General Kenneth McKenzie, CENTCOM commander in charge of the Near and Middle East, issued a clear warning. The Middle East would become “a test area for the proliferation and use of unmanned weapons systems, many of which originated in Iran.” says McKenzie.
“Iran uses drones in part to expand or replace the traditional role of combat aircraft because they cannot keep them operational,” writes the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in its latest report. What once began as a solution to embarrassment in the war against Iraq in the 1980s and to compensate for Iran’s technical inferiority, Tehran has now developed into a strategic strength.
A new report by the Iranian opposition group People’s Mujahideen, which WELT was exclusively available in advance, now provides insights into the full extent of the Iranian drone program. The People’s Mujahideen, who repeatedly uncovered Iran’s secret nuclear facilities in the past, were able to identify eight companies that manufacture drones or parts of drones in Iran.
Some of the companies operate under the umbrella of the “Organization of the Aviation Industry” of the Iranian Ministry of Defense, including Quds Air Industries, HESA, Fajr Industries and Basir Industries. Other parts of the drone program are linked to the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, such as Ghazanfar Roknabadi Industries, or operate under the umbrella of private companies.
Within the military organization of the Revolutionary Guard, the drone program has its own command structure and is headed by General Saeed Aqajan. The headquarters of the drone command are said to be in the Dastvareh barracks in northwest Tehran, where the Revolutionary Guard Air Force Command, led by General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, is also based. According to information from the People’s Mujahideen, regional drone bases are located at the Karimi Air Force Base in Kashan, at the Badr Base in Isfahan, at the Air Force Base in Ahvaz, which was apparently attacked by militant opponents of the regime in 2018, as well as in Kermanshah and in the Sajjad and Falaq barracks in western Tehran. According to the Israeli drone expert Seth Frantzman, in recent years the mullahs have also set up drone bases around the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck for oil transports from the Arabian Gulf. In 2015, Iran also built a runway west of Hormuz in Jakigur for the use of drones.
The perfect weapon for Iran
The attack on the Saudi oil plants in Abqaiq and Chrais two years ago showed how dangerous the Iranian drones are now. At that time, the low-flying Iranian drones overcame the Saudi air defenses and caused considerable damage. In January this year, the largest Iranian drone exercise to date, drones were used for reconnaissance and attack missions. This also included the use of attack drones equipped with air-to-ground missiles and of “loitering ammunitions”, often popularly referred to as “kamikaze drones”, which can circle over a target area for a long time before they identify the target and then destroy it.
Drones seem to be the perfect weapon for a country like Iran, which has little money for expensive armaments, but at the same time has considerable regional power ambitions. Drones are comparatively cheap and easy to maintain or replace. The unmanned flying objects do not endanger their own soldiers. And they allow Iran to operate below the threshold of severe military aggression that would justify war, and to disguise its authorship.
Quds Air Industries factory site near Tehran
So they are made for the gray area of covert war in which Iran likes to operate. Part of this strategy is the transfer of drone technology to clients of Iran in the region, which Tehran uses to expand its own power space. Exporting drones also offers Iran the opportunity to “develop valuable experience for developing its own systems and refine tactics, technology and procedures,” says the IISS report.
The Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah has been equipped with drone technology by Tehran since 2004 and has aircraft with a range of up to 1,700 kilometers, according to a report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). In 2004, Hezbollah managed to fly a reconnaissance drone over Israeli territory for the first time. In recent years, however, the Shiite militia have used drones to support the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, especially during the Syrian civil war.