The Larger Geopolitical Shift Behind Iran’s Drone Sales to Russia (2022)

The images that have emerged from Ukraine’s urban centers over the past week are stark. Lethal Iranian Shahed-136 drones, nicknamed “lawn mowers” or “mopeds” due to their incessant buzzing sound, have rained destruction on the country’s power grids and electricity substations, water pipelines, rail lines, dams, and other critical infrastructure. Air raid sirens have returned to its cities—a glaring reminder of the early days of the war. Experts estimate that Russia has ordered 1,700 Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of different types to conduct attacks against Ukrainian special forces, military units, air defense, and fuel storage depots.

An important objective for Moscow is psychological—to spread fear and intimidation that will undercut Ukrainian morale and compel the government into submission—and the mental effect of the drones has been unnerving. Information operations are a key component of modern warfare, and Moscow knows that when it comes to shaping narratives about the war, it has been on the losing end. Russia intends for the kamikaze drones to shift the narrative, yet the psychological impact of the drone campaign is likely to be low. While the strikes will bring significant suffering, harm, and corresponding violations of international humanitarian law, they may perversely strengthen Ukrainian resolve. Historically, punishment strategies tend to fail: for example, rather than bring about surrender, the 1940–1941 Blitz in London galvanized the British public to make sacrifices for victory.

Steven Feldstein

Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where he focuses on issues of democracy and technology, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy.

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However, if the benefits of the drone campaign are dubious for Russia, the same cannot be said for Iran, the supplier of the drones. Iran’s entry into the conflict—similar to Turkey’s supply of TB2 drones to Ukraine’s military—signifies a more meaningful geopolitical shift. In the past decade, drone technology has advanced at a rapid clip, with emerging powers such as Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the UAE at the forefront. As the technology used for drones has become more cost-effective and accessible, an array of ambitious actors have been able to enter the market—bringing both profits and geopolitical returns.

Iran’s Complementary Interests

Two factors help explain Iran’s export of drones to Russia: Moscow’s need for a cheap, expendable unmanned system to target Ukrainian infrastructure, and Iran’s strategic interest in upending the U.S.-led world order and enhancing its geopolitical influence.

For Moscow, an important selling point for Iran’s drones is their low cost. The Shahed-186, for example, features a distinctive triangular wing and operates autonomously. It carries a warhead of around 80 pounds that is designed to explode on impact. These single-use units cost a mere $20,000. In contrast, Russia’s Kalibr cruise missiles, used widely by Moscow in the war, cost $1 million each. (Turkey’s TB2 drones, used by the Ukrainian side, come with a price tag of $1 million to $2 million per unit—before factoring in “platform” costs for portable command stations and communications terminals, which can cost in the tens of millions of dollars.) Despite its cheap cost, the Shahed retains important capabilities, including the ability to evade radar detection and to operate at a range of up to 1,500 miles. By comparison, U.S.-supplied single-use Switchblade drones only operate in the range of 25 miles.

Moreover, Iranian drones fill a production need for Moscow. Russia has lagged when it comes to prioritizing drone development. Manufacturers such as the Kronstadt Group have several models that should eventually carry large payloads and incorporate advanced features such as satellite communications capabilities for longer range—but they are still far from production. The UAVs Russia currently produces, such as the ZALA/Kalashnikov KUB loitering munition, have short ranges and small warheads that make them inferior to similar Iranian options. In the short term, Iranian drones are playing a critical stopgap until the Kremlin can shore up its domestic UAV manufacturing. But whether Moscow will obtain sufficient capacity to produce drones at scale is unclear, given the bite of sanctions and their disruption of Russia’s supply chains, so Iran’s drones likely will occupy a key role in Russia’s military strategy for the foreseeable future.

For Iran, the benefits of placing its drones in Russia’s hands are significant. Iran first began to develop drone technology in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, and it has nurtured an advanced industry of both surveillance and attack vehicles, despite having to deal with major sanctions to its military and missile programs. Yet it has only had limited success selling its weapons to a handful of states, such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Venezuela. The deployment of the Shahed and Mohajer drones have given Iran an important propaganda opportunity. As international attention has turned to Russia’s latest aerial assault, Iran’s armaments have accrued valuable attention and potential future clients, particularly from rogue regimes and sanctioned states that face difficulties in acquiring these weapons. Its linkage to the Russian campaign provides an important legitimizing effect and may help move Tehran’s weapons industry toward amore prominent roleas a major arms exporter. Most importantly, Iran sees in Ukraine an opportunity to push back against U.S. interests and to bleed an American ally that has made unexpected gains in recent months.

To that end, Iran has been eager to facilitate Russian use of the UAVs. It has reportedly sent trainers and tactical advisers from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, to Crimea to assist with mechanical problems and facilitate drone launchings. Social media outlets linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have even posted videos of the drone attacks in Kyiv, perhaps to underline the prowess of its weapons system.

Turkey’s Drone Diplomacy

Turkey’s success in developing a robust drone export program is instructive for Iran. Ten years ago, Turkey relied predominantly on foreign-made drones from the United States and Israel. But in the early 2010s, in response to a growing reluctance by U.S. lawmakers to continue selling drones to Ankara, as well as deteriorating relations with Israel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a push to develop domestic capacity to produce UAVs and related defense industry products. The start-up cycle was rocky (the first prototype in 2010 reportedly crashed after fifteen minutes in flight), but by 2015, Baykar Technologies oversaw its first tests of precision-strike capabilities for its new TB2 model. Subsequently, Turkey’s drone companies achieved a series of milestones: developing the ability to carry out satellite-controlled airstrikes, completing the first flight using a domestically produced engine, and continuously flying drones for more than twenty-four hours.

Turkey quickly ushered its drones into combat. Since 2019, Ankara has carried out a punishing campaign of drone strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Syria and Iraq and has reportedly also used drones to conduct aerial raids against groups fighting for Kurdish causes in at least eleven provinces in the southeast of the country. But Turkey’s ambitions for its drones extend beyond fighting these organizations. In Libya, autonomous loitering drones from the Turkish manufacturer STM drove back forces under Libyan National Army leader General Khalifa Haftar in 2020. That same year, Azerbaijan forces used Turkish TB2 drones against Armenian vehicles and troops—footage that was then displayed on digital billboards in Baku. In 2021 in Ethiopia, Tigray insurgent forces had successfully routed the Ethiopian National Army to within 100 miles of Addis Ababa when drone strikes from foreign UAVs pushed the Tigrayan army back to their home province. While Turkish drones were not singly responsible for the battlefield reversal, Erdoğan had pointedly aligned himself with Ethiopia’s government, signing a military pact in 2021 and boasting that “even in Africa, everywhere I go, they want UAVs.”

Turkey’s march to expand its geopolitical influence via drone technology has been deliberate. Erdoğan has marketed drones to a broad range of countries, including states that have encountered obstacles in obtaining UAVs from Western suppliers due to export restrictions. A goal of Turkey’s so-called drone diplomacy is to broaden political, military, and economic ties that will benefit Turkey and allow it to boost regional and global connections. Turkey’s government has unsurprisingly invested millions of dollars to support the continued development of Baykar’s TB2 drone; in 2019, Turkey reportedly committed $105 million worth of additional funding to Baykar. Moreover, the ties between Erdoğan and Bayraktar run deep: In May 2016, Baykar’s founder married the president’s youngest daughter and has become an “outspoken defender” of his father-in-law’s government.

A Wider Expansion

The moves by Turkey and Iran to secure new markets for their drone technology and obtain commensurate geopolitical benefits belie a growing trend. In just five years, the number of countries manufacturing and exporting UAVs has exploded: in 2017, nine countries were developing or manufacturing twenty-six models of loitering munitions; more than 100 models are in development or production in at least twenty-four countries today.

The implications of this expansion are unsettling. In part, it is an indication of larger geopolitical fractures, as emerging states leverage digital technology and sophisticated weaponry to compete for influence and power. Many of the new entrants pay scant regard to liberal norms or international humanitarian law. While manufacturers from the United States, Europe, and other democracies must contend with regulatory restrictions that limit which government clients they can sell to, Turkey faces fewer constraints, and Iran faces none at all. As a result, civilian casualties linked to drones are increasing precipitously. In Ethiopia, UN officials allege that the military has employed drone attacks with “wide-area effects in populated areas,” including a drone strike on a camp for internally displaced persons. In Ukraine, Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, have raised charges of war crimes.

The proliferation of drones will bring more incidents of civilian harm and violations of humanitarian law, particularly from regimes that have little regard for human rights or the norms of war. The latest attacks in Ukraine illustrate how lower-cost, mass-produced drones can function as an important lever for advancing an exporting country’s geopolitical ambitions.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

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