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 drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has given Tehran an expanding edge in asymmetric warfare across the region while U.S. sanctions have otherwise crippled the capabilities of its conventional air forces, the National Council of Resistance of Iran said Wednesday.
The dissident group gave a presentation to journalists at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, revealing what it characterized as “newly disclosed information” about the scope and nature of the Iranian program, including a matrix of eight drone development complexes.
“The UAV program of the Iranian regime is the primary weapon used for terrorism and warmongering and destabilizing the region, and certainly this is supplying proxies in the region with those UAVs,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the U.S. branch of NCRI.
The group has critics and followers in various countries and is known for openly supporting regime change in Tehran.
“There are two elements involved in the [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 and compiled by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an NCRI-affiliated group with members operating inside Iran.
Mr. Jafarzadeh’s claims were not immediately verifiable and the MEK has a controversial history in Washington, but the group appears to have sources deeply embedded 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.
The Wall Street Journal published an expose Wednesday that quoted U.S., European and Israeli defense sources as saying Tehran’s ability to develop and deploy drones rapidly is changing the security equation in 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 cited a confidential assessment produced for the British government by C4ADS, a Washington-based think tank that says Iran has armed its Houthi allies in Yemen with drones using a network of commercial companies around the world.
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 to documents circulated by the NCRI, belongs to the aviation research unit of the IRGC’s Imam Hossein University and “copies … and builds UAVs, ultralight planes, and drones and also installs cameras and other equipment 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 said the directorate manages the shipping of finished drones and drone components to militant groups allied with Tehran in Syria, 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 office, whose job is to basically smuggle, whether the finished product of UAVs or the parts [using] air, land and sea pathways to send these weapons to their proxies in these countries.”
Reports of drone strikes carried out by Iranian forces or proxies in recent months often have been vague and difficult to confirm. An attack in July targeted the Israeli-linked British tanker Mercer Street in the Arabian Sea.
A Pentagon investigative team announced in August that it believed the drone used in that attack was produced in Iran and was loaded “with a military-grade explosive.” Details on who operated the drone were never clarified.
In late August, at least eight people were wounded in a drone strike that Yemen-based Houthi militants carried out against Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport. The Houthi forces have received considerable backing from Tehran in Yemen’s bloody civil war.
Similar strikes have proved vexing for U.S. forces based in nearby Iraq, where drone attacks carried out by Shiite militia groups with deep ties to Iran have added another layer of complexity.
After an early-September drone strike near U.S. forces stationed at Irbil International Airport in northern Iraq, Reuters reported that witnesses heard at least six explosions. That suggests the aircraft used in the attack may have been carrying multiple miniature missiles.
The news agency noted that the airport in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, had come under attack several times over the year leading up to the incident, including by drones carrying 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 are in Iraq to support Iraqi military operations against the Islamic State terrorist group.
The Iranian drone activity was revealed amid speculation that the Biden administration may be preparing to ease sanctions on Iran as part of an effort to lure the regime into diplomatic talks toward restoring aspects of the Obama-era Iranian nuclear deal.
Mr. Jafarzadeh said the U.S. should be pushing to increase sanctions, not ease them. He said sanctions are “a significant tool in limiting the resources of the Iranian regime in making them pay the price.”
“If the regime is allowed to do such an extensive [drone] operation … without any consequences, they only get encouraged,” he said. “If they constantly hear that ‘We’re open for negotiations, let’s sit down and talk’ and repeatedly hear that instead of being penalized and feeling consequences for the terror and mayhem and destruction they have created in the region, that certainly is not helpful.”
Others have argued that sanctions may have little impact on an Iranian drone program that relies less on the procurement of sophisticated military equipment than on establishing networks for acquiring consumer-level drone equipment and then militarizing it in clandestine facilities.
“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, who now heads the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, noted in an analysis published by Defense One that a June attack on a U.S. State Department facility in Baghdad was carried out by a drone “built cheaply with off-the-shelf components, including a motor made in Japan and an inexpensive commercial Global Navigation Satellite System antenna with a built-in compass.”
“Other parts,” she wrote, “come from black-market salvagers of drone test and attack debris, who would not be affected by sanctions.”