Key Point: Iran is working hard on its own program for robotics, drones, and artificial intelligence.
Recent Iranian ship interceptions highlight Iran’s military challenge and continue to drive a regional arms race. Whereas Gulf Cooperation Council states spend lavishly on high-end, off-the-shelf, U.S.-built platforms, decades of sanctions and post-revolutionary strategic decisions to be militarily self-sufficient has led Islamic Republic to focus more on its own indigenous industries. Direct comparisons of defense spending between Arab states and Iran is difficult. While a superficial reading of public statistics shows Saudi and Emirati spending far outstrips Iran’s as a proportion of GDP, it would be a mistake to take public Iranian statistics at face value. Still, post-revolutionary Iran has long embraced asymmetric strategies such as terrorism or perhaps nuclear technologies to counter enemies, both real or imagined.
This should not surprise. Historically, many Middle Eastern countries have approached technology with suspicion, but Iran has been the exception. In the early twentieth century, for example, Saudi clerics resisted first the introduction of the telegraph and then radio. Into the 1970s, some Saudi clerics complained that television was a plot dreamed up in the West to separate Muslim children from God (some savvy clerics subsequently embraced the medium to spread their radical Wahabi perspectives). The Iranian Shah Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896) sponsored his own telegraph line in Tehran just over a decade after Samuel Morse laid America’s first long distance line. Both the Iranian government and public readily embraced almost every new generational technology, despite Iran’s often repressive political atmosphere. (The Iranian historian Hussein Ardakani, unfortunately writing only in Persian, chronicled this embrace in his seminal History of the Institutions of a New Civilization in Iran).
The same dynamic has been true regarding the internet. Many Arab countries initially rejected or sought to suppress internet access as much for cultural reticence as politics, but within the Middle East, Iran and Israel stood in sharp contrast. In 1993, Iran became the second country in the Middle East after Israel to connect to the internet.
As the Iranian leadership embraces new technologies, its whole-of-government approach means that its work occurs not only on military bases, but also in Iran’s universities and nominally civilian companies within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ economic empire. Indeed, one of the primary motives for the Islamic Republic to send students—especially the children of regime elites and other loyalists—to Western universities and to invest heavily in cyber-espionage is to gain access to the latest in advanced technical fields.
There is a persistent tendency within Washington to underestimate Iran; indeed, this was one of the reasons why the Islamic Republic was able to keep its covert nuclear enrichment and weapons research secret for so long. Iran’s entire nuclear program—not only enrichment and energy generation but also, according to pre-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting, detonator development and a neutron initiator—demonstrated the Iranian ability to achieve advanced technological abilities indigenously.
Simply put, Iranian engineers and scientists are adept at developing cutting edge military technologies. It has been ten years, for example, since Iran successfully launched its first satellite into orbit, an event which then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said proved the “divine view of Iranians towards science.” In the decade since, Iran’s space agency has successfully launched more than a half dozen satellites; more satellite launches are slated for this year. Of course, satellite launch technology can provide cover for advanced ballistic missile work. Perhaps this is why last year Iranian scientists developed a gyroscope to augment inertial navigation in Iran’s ballistic missiles.
The Iranian government has also encouraged nanotechnology investment. On January 31, 2015, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visited a nanotechnology exhibition and, claiming that Iran ranked seventh internationally in nanotechnology, urged even greater progress. “You should move forward and you should not abandon the thought of making progress—in this area—on a daily basis,” he said.
Iranian students in Bushehr subsequently joined a rigorous nanotech education program, and the Iranian government has sponsored nanotechnology Olympiads in which top students can compete against each other and which the Iranian government can use for recruitment. There have now been eleven nanotechnology festivals in Tehran meant to provide resources for Iranian students and to facilitate partnerships between Iranian firms and foreign partners, and a twelfth slated for October.
Recent incidents not only with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf but also in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have also highlighted Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) work. Iran put its first drone into operation in 1985, a decade or two before many other regional states did. Today the IRGC maintains perhaps a dozen different UAV models, the newest of which operate in day and night, utilize GPS guidance, and remain airborne for twelve hours at a time.
While diplomats continue to focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the next generation of military technology involves hypersonic weaponry, robotics, and autonomous systems. There is no indication that the Islamic Republic has the ability to engage in hypersonic work, nor are their allies in China and Russia willing to trust them with such data and technology. Robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence are another matter.
There are three ways Iran might speed up its acquisition of such technologies: Foreign education, overt assistance from China and Russia, or espionage. It may not be politically correct to discuss potential threats posed by Iranian students in American (or European) universities, but the risk is real. Slightly more than half of the twelve thousand Iranian students studying in the United States in academic year 2016–2017, for example, studied engineering, and another 12 percent pursued math or computer science degrees. While the Trump administration’s more restrictive policy might curtail visas for some, students might simply turn to universities in Russia, China, India or, most permissive of all, Europe. Even if the vast majority of Iranian students have no desire to serve their regime, the reality of the Iranian economy means that, upon their return, many would have little choice but to work for government—or IRGC—directed projects.
And, for all the pride Iranian leaders take in Iran’s indigenous industries, the regime has not hesitated to accept covert nuclear and ballistic missile assistance from North Korea, and broader, more overt help from Russia and China. Tehran and Beijing, for example, have created joint nanotech centers in China and active links between Iranian and Chinese nanotech companies. Russian leaders, especially, seem willing not only to export technology to Iran, but also to allow Iranian scientists to manufacture it themselves. Just this year, Tasnim News, an outlet affiliated with the IRGC, announced that Iranian engineers were seeking to manufacture a version of Russia’s Pantsir anti-aircraft missile system inside Iran. Robotics might be the next target of Russo-Iranian cooperation. On June 24, 2019, Iran’s deputy defense minister visited Moscow to attend a “Military-Technical Forum” attended by over twelve hundred Russian and foreign companies, many of which work in robotics.
Russia might be willing to share, but Western technology remains the gold standard. It is here that deception and espionage come into play. European permissiveness plays into Iranian hands. In 2008, for example, IRGC-linked Qods Aviation sought to use French intermediaries to purchase German components for Iran’s UAV program. Five years later, German prosecutors charged a German-Iranian dual citizen and an Iranian man with the illegal export of sixty-one aircraft engines to use in its drone program. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia likewise indicted Australian national David Levick and his company ICM Components for a scheme to export drones and other technology to Iran.
For every successful interdiction, there is some technology which does get through. The Iranian Ayoub drone flown by Hezbollah and downed by Israel after it penetrated airspace near Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona was actually manufactured by the German company Siemens and Bockstiegel and purchased by an IRGC front company. Iran has also repeatedly claimed to have reverse-engineered the US RQ-170 downed over Iran in December 2011. As for cyber espionage, the growing Iranian cyber bureaucracy is well-documented, well-resourced, and growing.
However it acquires technology, Iranian military tacticians increasingly appear to be incorporating artificial intelligence if not fully autonomous systems into their platforms. The IRGC has recently drilled “Fuji assaults” in which artificial intelligence helps coordinate boats, planes, tanks, and drones in a broad attack. The IRGC used similar tactics during the battle against the Islamic State in the eastern Euphrates region. On June 12, 2019, Iranian Air Defense Force commander Alireza Sabahifard announced a new air defense system that can detect stealth UAVs and which may also utilize some basic artificial intelligence in its operation. That Iranian authorities successfully downed a U.S. drone just a month later suggests that Iranian advances, even if Iranian authorities exaggerate, should not be easily dismissed.
Iran is also pushing forward with its own drone capabilities and other robotics. In October 2018, Tehran hosted an International Conference on Robotics and Mechatronics in which academics presented their research, much of which focused on optimizing flight paths, and UAV deconfliction and collision avoidance. One paper, for example, unveiled a new methodology to coordinate multiple flying robots in an “obstacle-laden environment.” Another researcher proposed a new algorithm to reduce UAV fuel consumption and distance traveled. A researcher from Lebanon explored various properties and optimizations for underwater drones. Other research utilized particle swarm optimization and statistical software to improve UAV controls. A June 2019 Tasnim article meanwhile discussed how artificial intelligence could create threats to “psychological security” by utilizing drones or autonomous vehicles for suicide operations. That state-controlled press regularly reports on robotic development in places like Australia’s Queensland University of Technology or Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States shows official interest in developing robotics further.