Iran has used drones to target Israel, Iraq, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other groups and countries. Recent reports say Iranian drones have made it to Venezuela, and that they are being made in Tajikistan and could even be sold to Russia.
"We did not have the capabilities we have now in the military field in the past," Hajizadeh said this week, according to Iran's Tansim News. "In the past, we imported barbed wire, but now we export drones; undoubtedly, this path has been taken by establishing a relationship between knowledge-based departments, universities and elites."
The context of these comments is that the Iranian government is stressing its increased abilities in the defense industry. Iran wants to be an exporter of equipment. This is important because in the past, the Islamic Republic armed proxy groups but didn't really export defense material.
For instance, Iran had used clandestine methods to move missiles and more recently drones to Yemen, as well as aiding Hamas to increase its rocket range, and also move precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah. Tehran also moved ballistic missiles to Iraq in 2018 and 2019 to station them with the Popular Mobilization Units, the pro-Iran militias that make up paramilitary forces of Baghdad's security forces.
Overall, Iran was moving weapons in a piecemeal fashion, meaning helping its proxies make drones, but not really exporting them in a normal way. Now Iran wants to show that it can establish a real military-industrial complex. Hajizadeh wants that power for his forces in the IRGC. This will inevitably mean more power for the Quds Force and therefore more irregular and asymmetric exports and threats to the region.
IRGC industry control
BUT WHAT about the IRGC's control over major industries? For instance, the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA), which was established in 1976, makes the Ababil line of drones. The original HESA factory was built by Textron and once produced Bell helicopters back before the Islamic Revolution. Iran's goal has been to take these historical industries and use them to increase its abilities in the air today. Iran's abilities are impressive, but what might come next?
"Our economic problem was caused by two main factors: One of them was the foreign factor that started with the sanctions and pressure of the enemy," Hajizadeh said this week. "The enemy used all its strength for this sanction. Based on this, during the Obama era, the sanctions were started by employing people and creating a camp and spending a lot of money, and the same maximum pressure was maintained during the Trump era."
He went on to claim that "American action from abroad and American hope inside were the two blades of scissors to weaken the economic conditions of the country." Iran's IRGC has invested in research and development over the last decade and this has given the country "superiority in the airspace – and we heard many times that the Westerners prioritized negotiations to limit our drones and missile power," Hajizadeh indicated.
This is important because it means that as the Western powers discuss a return to the 2015 Iran deal, the IRGC Aerospace force and the regime are paying close attention. Iran wants a return to the deal to free up cash for its defense industry – then it can invest in more rockets and missiles and drones.
This investment could mean that Tehran would expand beyond moving drones to proxy forces and begin to export them in greater quantities to countries. This could involve exports to Central Asia, Africa and South America. Iran has inroads already in Venezuela, Ethiopia and Tajikistan, besides its proxy role in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
If Tehran can get sanctions relief via the Iran deal – and if the IRGC is not sanctioned or US pressure on the missile and drone program ends – then the Islamic Republic believes it could seriously leverage the missile and drone industry for export.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.