Recent comments from senior Iranian officials strongly suggest that Tehran sees itself as a booming arms exporter, particularly drones. In reality, Iran, at least under the regime in place in Tehran, is unlikely to be able to replicate Turkey’s impressive success in exporting its famous local drone Bayraktar TB2 to many countries around the world in a few years only. Iran will have to make do with a much more limited market made up of other pariah states and cash-strapped countries with few or no viable alternatives.
In an October 22 televised address, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said foreign leaders frequently inquire about Iran’s indigenous military equipment when he travels abroad.
“Until recently, our military industry didn’t even have barbed wire, and they weren’t giving it to us,” he said. “Today, in New York, in Samarkand, when I meet heads of state, they ask me: ‘You don’t want to sell us the products of your military industries?'”
Raisi claimed he would answer such questions by asking why these countries suddenly want Iranian hardware, to which they invariably reply, “Your industry is more advanced. It’s different from the rest of the world.”
On August 22, the aerospace commander of Iran’s powerful paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also used the analogy of barbed wire to illustrate how far Iran’s arms industry has come. .
“In the military field, we did not have the capabilities that we have now,” said Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh. “In the past, we even imported barbed wire, but now we export drones.”
And on October 18, Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi highlighted Iran’s success in manufacturing drones.
“Today we have reached a point where 22 countries around the world are demanding to buy unmanned aircraft from Iran,” he said.
These 22 countries include Armenia, Algeria, Serbia, Tajikistan and Venezuela, although analysts are skeptical about the alleged interest of Serbia.
With Iranian-made Shahed-136 fighter munitions (known as suicide drones) raining down on Ukrainian cities almost every day, there is no denying that Iran has successfully exported huge numbers of its drones to Russia.
Despite this, Tehran officially denies the very existence of what could be – with Russia’s expected acquisition of hundreds of ballistic missiles from Iran – its largest ever arms export. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian even went so far as to say that Tehran “should not remain indifferent” if “it is proven to us that Iranian drones are being used in the Ukrainian war against the people”.
Russia should support this obvious lie. Moscow officially claims that it uses only Russian equipment bearing “Russian names” in Ukraine. “We don’t have such information,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked about Russia’s widely publicized acquisition of Iranian drones.
Iranian drones in the service of Russia do indeed bear Russian names. The Shahed-136, for example, was renamed Geran-2. Yemen’s Houthis have also rebranded their Iranian-designed drones to disguise their otherwise obvious origin. For example, the Houthi versions of the Ababi-2 are known as Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K respectively.
Even if Iran were open about selling drones to Russia, this deal is certainly not a sign of a rising Iranian drone industry that could rival that of Turkey or China.
Moscow would have liked a factory to build TB2s. There were also indicators a whole year before this war that it was afraid of these Turkish drones given their previous combat successes in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Turkey refuses to sell to Russia the TB2, and China is unwilling to sell its drones to Russia after the invasion, as this would undoubtedly result in heavy US sanctions. These factors make it clear that Russia had nowhere to turn but Iran for large quantities of cheap drones to replace and supplement its dwindling missile stockpiles.
This obviously does not mean that Iran has not succeeded in exporting elsewhere. Outside the Middle East, Ethiopia and Venezuela appear to have acquired the Mohajer-6 armed drone from Iran. Tehran also inaugurated a factory in Tajikistan for the local assembly of its Ababil-2 drone, the first of its kind to build Iranian drones abroad. We may soon learn that a similar factory has been set up in Russia to mass-produce Shaheds.
Yet Turkish drones are much more prevalent in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Additionally, Turkey is establishing factories to locally manufacture its drones in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.
The TB2 undoubtedly has a mixed reputation. Kurdish civilians terrorized by Turkish drone strikes in Iraq and Syria understandably have a very different view of them than the Ukrainians – who effectively used their TB2s to halt Russia’s advance on Kyiv at the start of the war. Russia’s deployment of Iranian drones to terrorize Ukrainian civilians, in addition to their earlier use by militias in the Middle East, has given them a much more one-sided reputation as crude and indiscriminate terrorist weapons. That’s probably one of the reasons Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky chose one of more than 300 Shahed drones his forces have shot down in recent weeks to stand by his side when he recently swore the Ukraine would “clip the wings” of Russian air power to limit Moscow’s ability to terrorize Ukrainian cities with help from Iran.
Iran will most likely find a dozen countries interested in procuring its drones. Safavi was probably telling the truth when he said 22 countries were interested in Tehran’s drones. However, the majority of these countries have few other options for political or financial reasons. Therefore, the Iranian drone market will most likely remain a niche market that cannot reasonably hope to achieve the international success currently enjoyed by the Turkish drone industry.