The West Must Wake Up to the Iranian Drone Threat

April 12, 2023 Topic: Iran Region: Middle East Tags: IranDronesUAVsIsraelUnited StatesSaudi Arabia

The West Must Wake Up to the Iranian Drone Threat

Iran’s drones, particularly those that serve as loitering munitions, are becoming a key component of Tehran’s low-intensity warfare tactics.


Western governments should be worried. Despite stalled nuclear talks with Europe and the United States, and amid mounting grassroots unrest at home, there are clear signs that Iran’s military programs are maturing—and that its regional ambitions in the Middle East are growing as a result.

In late September, Iran’s military launched an offensive on the Kurdish territories of neighboring Iraq. The strikes, involving domestically-built drones followed by missile salvos, were directed at the political center of Kurdish power in Iraq, Erbil. Presumably, these were intended to distract from Iran’s own internal issues as well as to “punish” the Kurds in Iraq for supporting Iranians protesting at home. But that attack could very well serve as a portent of things to come.


To understand why, it’s necessary to examine the evolution of Iran’s drone program. Despite ongoing international sanctions and a lackluster economy, developing a sustainable drone industry has been an area of intense focus for Iranian officials in recent years, for good reason. By the early 2010s, it had become apparent that the country’s foreign policy ambitions and its military development were profoundly mismatched. Tehran gasped that it needed more sophisticated military hardware that could be easily used in asymmetric conflicts in which the Islamic Republic was involved.

One of the most notable results of this realization was a crash program to develop cheap and expendable unmanned platforms. These included drones used purely for surveillance and reconnaissance, those that can launch air-to-ground missiles, and “kamikaze” UAVs that can serve as loitering munitions. In turn, the numerous drones designed by Iran have given it a wide range of strategic options in its pursuit of regional hegemony.

The results are pronounced. Iranian drones, for instance, have been used for several years by the Houthis to launch attacks on Saudi Arabian soil by its Gulf proxy, Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Employing Iranian technology, the Houthis have menaced the nearby United Arab Emirates as well.

But Iranian proxies are not the only beneficiaries of Tehran’s increasingly robust drone effort. So, too, is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has come to rely on Iranian drone technology as an equalizer of sorts in its current conflict with Ukraine. Amid battlefield setbacks and a pronounced lack of strategy, the Kremlin in recent weeks has turned to Tehran for assistance in replenishing its rapidly dwindling stocks of precision weaponry. The result has been multiple deliveries of Iranian drones, which have since been employed by the Russian military on “kamikaze” missions against Ukrainian population centers as well as to acquire combat data.

The pattern is clear: Iran’s drones, particularly those that serve as loitering munitions, are becoming a key component of Tehran’s low-intensity warfare tactics. In Iraq, Iran’s drones serve as a cost-effective way to increase its influence and react quickly to events on the ground. In the Gulf, they provide an indirect way to menace geopolitical adversaries and competitors. And in the broader region, such a capability gives Tehran the power to threaten naval vessels and the critical oil trade that transits the Strait of Hormuz.

Western governments are waking up to the Iranian drone threat. The Stop Iranian Drones Act, which passed a vote in the House of Representatives this past fall, was a good initial response designed to prevent Iran or any of its proxies from acquiring the lethal technology. But the measure ended up dying before becoming law, thanks to wrangling between the House and Senate. As a result, there is currently no legislation on the books in the U.S. Congress to target Iran’s burgeoning drone industry and its potential beneficiaries. To its credit, the executive branch has taken steps to crack down on Iran’s drone technology, with the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announcing sanctions on entities and individuals in Iran and Turkey who trafficked parts and materials to Iran critical to the latter’s drone production and development.

That represents a good start. But on the whole, America’s slow response to the Iranian drone threat sets a dangerous precedent, because a lack of serious action by the United States may force other actors in the Middle East to pursue their own strategies for reducing Iran’s drone capacity. A recent strike on an Iranian drone factory believed to have been carried out by Israel eloquently demonstrates this point. And if Iran’s recent activities on the Ukraine front and in the Gulf are any indication, the Islamic Republic’s drone program is poised to become a source of sustenance for its clerical regime—and a serious concern for everyone else.

Brent Cagen is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Image: Shutterstock.