Iran smuggling high-tech drones to militant allies, opposition group says
Iran‘s theocratic regime has ramped up its drone manufacturing operation in recent years and is now smuggling an increasingly sophisticated slate of the weaponized remote control aircraft to allied militant groups around the Middle East, according to intelligence gathered by a leading Iranian dissident group.
The Iranian military’s embrace of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has given Tehran an increasing edge in asymmetric warfare throughout the region, while U.S. sanctions had otherwise severely limited the capabilities of conventional air forces, the National Council of Resistance of stated Wednesday.
The dissident group presented to journalists at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. It revealed what it called “newly disclosed information,” including a matrix of eight drone-development complexes.
“The UAV Program of the Iranian Regime is the primary weapon for terror and warmongering, and destabilizing region. This is certainly being done by supplying proxies with those UAVs,” stated Alireza Jafarzadeh , deputy director of U.S. branch NCRI.
The group has many critics and followers across the globe and is well-known for its open support of regime change in Tehran.
” There are two components involved in [drone] production. One is the Ministry of Defense, and the other one is the Aerospace Force of the Revolutionary Guards,” said Mr. Jafarzadeh. He Circulated data obtained from the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an NCRI-affiliated organization with members operating within Iran .
Mr. Jafarzadeh claims could not be verified immediately and the MEK has an ambiguous history in Washington. However, the group seems to have deep roots within the Iranian defense community. MEK members are credited with significant revelations about Iran‘s covert weapons activities, most notably its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Wednesday’s expose by The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. defense sources who claimed that Tehran’s ability develop and deploy drones quickly is altering the security equation within the volatile region.
The components of Iran‘s drones are widely available, although some designs mimic those of the Israeli and U.S. militaries. The Journal quoted a confidential assessment by C4ADS (a Washington-based thinktank) that stated Iran has equipped its Houthi allies with drones through a network made up of commercial companies from around the globe.
A matrix of done-makers
Mr. Jafarzadeh‘s presentation outlined a matrix of drone and parts manufacturers that he said are active inside Iran and are aligned with or directly controlled by the Iranian military or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Among those Mr. Jafarzadeh named are Ghazanfar Roknabadi Industries, Quds Air Industries, Fajr Industries Group, Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Co., Shahid Basir Industry, Bespar Sazeh Composite Co., Paravar Pars Co. and an unidentified special drone production operation in the Iranian city of Semnan.
Paravar pars, according documents circulated by NCRI, belonged to the aviation research unit at the IRGC’s Imam Hossein University. He “copies…, builds UAVs, superlight planes and drones, and also installs cameras, other equipment and on drones .”
Mr. Jafarzadeh outlined how the crux of the drone development program is tied to the “logistics directorate” of Iran‘s elite Quds Force, a key branch of IRGC. He stated that the directorate is responsible for shipping drones and components to militant groups aligned with Tehran in Syria and Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
“It is a very interesting and very important part of the whole operation of the Quds Force,” Mr. Jafarzadeh said. They actually have a smuggling department, whose job it is to basically smuggle whether the final product of UAVs, or the parts [using] land, sea and sea pathways to deliver these weapons to their proxies in these countries .
Reports about drone strikes by Iranian forces or proxy forces in recent months have often been vague and hard to verify. In July, the attack on the British-linked tanker Mercer Street, which was in the Arabian Sea, took place.
In August, a Pentagon investigative team stated that the drone used in the attack was manufactured in Iran . It was also loaded with a military-grade explosive. Details about who was responsible for the drone’s operation were not revealed.
In late August, at most eight people were injured in a drone attack that Yemen-based Houthi militants launched against Saudi Arabia’s Abha Internation Airport. Tehran has given the Houthi forces a lot of support in Yemen’s civil war.
Similar strikes proved to be vexing for U.S forces based in Iraq. Drone attacks by Shiite militia group with deep ties Iran have added an additional layer of complexity.
Witnesses heard at least six explosions after a drone strike in September near U.S. forces at Irbil International Airport, northern Iraq. This suggests that the drone used in the attack could have carried multiple small missiles.
The news agency reported that Irbil’s airport, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish regions, was under attack multiple times in the year prior to the incident. This included by drones with explosives.
Iran denies any involvement in the attacks in Iraq, but U.S. officials have blamed the strikes on Iran-aligned militias that have vowed to fight until roughly 2,500 U.S. military forces leave the country. The U.S. troops in Iraq are there to support the military operations against Islamic State terrorists.
The Iranian drone activity was discovered amid speculations that the Biden administration might be planning to relax sanctions on Iran in an attempt to get the regime to engage diplomatic talks to restore aspects of the Obama-era Iranian nuclear agreement.
“If a regime is allowed to conduct such an extensive [drone], operation…without any consequences, they only receive encouraged,” he stated. “If they hear constantly that “We’re open to negotiations”, and then hear repeatedly that they should be punished and face consequences for the terror and destruction they’ve caused in the region, it’s certainly not helpful .”
Some have suggested that sanctions might have little effect on an Iranian drone program, which relies less upon the purchase of sophisticated military equipment but more on establishing networks to acquire drone-level equipment for use in militarizing it in clandestine locations.
“Sanctions may not be able to affect Iran‘s program in a way that improves security for local populations or U.S. citizens or military personnel working and living in the Middle East,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, a former top National Security Council official focused on the Middle East.
Ms. Fontenrose is now the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative within the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. In an analysis published in Defense One, she noted that the drone used in the attack on the U.S. State Department facility at Baghdad in June was “built cheaply using off-the-shelf parts, including a motor made by Japan and a commercial Global Navigation Satellite System antenna with an integrated compass .”
“Other Parts” she wrote, “comes from black-market salvars of drone test, attack debris, who would be not be affected by the sanctions .”