Containment and Strike: Iran’s Drone Program
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 17
Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) program has made headlines in recent months, after several of its drones were shot down outside the country’s borders, over Pakistan and Syria (Dawn, June 20). These incidents come as the country is beefing up its counterterrorism efforts, following the twin attacks in Tehran carried out by Islamic State (IS) in June (Tasnim, June 7).
As part of its counterterrorism efforts, Iran is increasingly applying its growing UAV capabilities to identifying and targeting terrorists. This is particularly the case in the country’s border areas, as well as in neighboring countries whose governments Tehran believes are unwilling or unable to tackle what it perceives a terrorist threat.
Capabilities and Applications
Iran possesses a range of surveillance and weaponized drones, including the H-110 Sarir, equipped with air-to-air missiles, and the Shahed 129, a drone capable of carrying out 24-hour surveillance as well as strike missions (Mehr, May 13, 2013).
Its UAV program was established during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and is one of the oldest in the world. Given Iran’s military doctrine, it is unsurprising that it would invest in developing a robust UAV program. Indeed, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s defense doctrine has led it to develop low-risk, relatively low-cost tools, including missiles and UAVs, which afford it the ability to tackle threats at a distance without putting Iranian lives on the line.
Although the Islamic Republic frequently makes dubious claims about the capabilities of its military technology, the country has, nonetheless, made considerable progress with its drone program, especially considering it has essentially developed it against a backdrop of political isolation and economic sanctions (Fars News, May 11, 2014). Nevertheless, it has a number of shortcomings and, as with most military technology, producers must often juggle “trade-offs” when designing drones — choosing between sometimes mutually exclusive features, such as range, speed, autonomy, payload, precision and the ability to avoid radar detection. Iran is also still lacking the considerable infrastructure required for its ambitions, often the most expensive part of UAV programs, given the “long tail” required to keep the drones operational, such as training operatives and gathering intelligence.
On the civilian front, Iran has deployed drones for environmental monitoring and is working to apply UAVs for sea rescue, among other purposes (IRNA, May 27, 2015). It is on the military front, however, that Iran’s drone program has its widest application, with its drones utilized both directly, as well as indirectly via its proxies and various supported groups and militias.
Several security and military entities share the burden of Iranian counterterrorism.  These include the country’s conventional military forces (known as the Artesh), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ministry of intelligence and security (MOIS), and the country’s law enforcement body (known by its Persian acronym, NAJA). Each of these organizations is, in turn, divided into smaller, often specialized or local, entities. Some entities operate exclusively within the country, as in the case of NAJA. Others operate mainly abroad, as is the case with the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, which is responsible for much of Iran’s support for terrorist groups and militias in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, as well as Iran’s own counterterrorism efforts there. Meanwhile, the Artesh, some IRGC units and MOIS have operations both at home and abroad.
These bodies share a number of counterterrorism missions, and in recent years, Iran has developed or started working on UAVs to facilitate them. Some are directly involved in the production process, while others merely make use the drones supplied to them.
The IRGC and Artesh, and the defense ministry more generally, are the main players in Iran’s drone program.
MOIS and the IRGC are the primary entities in charge of Iran’s surveillance, monitoring and intelligence gathering. The country has historically relied primarily on human intelligence (HUMINT), collected via its network of embassies and diplomatic offices abroad, friendly non-state actors and the Basij militias, which are tied to the IRGC. In recent years, however, Tehran has tried to diversify its sources and methods, and has worked to complement its HUMINT capabilities with signals intelligence (SIGINT), of which the drone program is an important component. In 2015, for example, Iran unveiled Mohajem 92, a reconnaissance drone with a range of 500 kilometers and a maximum speed of 125 miles per hour that, according to Iranian sources, can stay aloft for up to six hours (Mehr, September 3, 2016).
Iran primarily deploys surveillance drones in its border areas, including for reconnaissance and target identification. Indeed, the country has several troubled border areas where terrorist groups have been active for decades. As a consequence, it conducts extensive border patrols and increasingly deploys UAVs to those areas.
To Iran’s east, the country shares its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bordering province of Sistan-Balochestan is a predominantly Sunni area and has been plagued Sunni and other separatist terrorist groups, which for decades have perpetrated hundreds of terrorist attacks there. The region where the three countries’ borders meet is particularly vulnerable, exploited by terrorist groups, such as Jundollah, which perpetrate attacks in Iran, before retreating to Pakistan.
Iranian armed forces and border guards — who are often conscripts rather than professional military personnel or NAJA personnel — have repeatedly been kidnapped and killed in that area (Jam-e Jam, April 30; Asr-e Iran, April 27), rendering the use of drones to conduct surveillance and conduct counterterrorism operations particularly attractive.
To its west, Iran shares a porous border with Iraq. Parts of the border areas are populated by Kurds on both sides, and goods and individuals have long been able to cross the border between the two countries without much trouble. There too, Iran benefits from deploying drones, especially after the June attacks in Tehran showed IS has been able to recruit among Iranian Kurds.
Containment and Strike
Iran has undertaken a number of counterterrorism operations on its own soil. These are both overt and covert in nature, defensive as well as offensive.
Iran’s preferred counterterrorism tool is containment. Its “campfire strategy” is designed to keep the threat of terrorist groups away from the Iranian borders, territory, and population, and is partly the reason why Iran has deployed forces to Iraq and Syria. The country has a long history of working with various terrorist groups in order to avoid becoming an active target for them itself, as was the case with al-Qaeda throughout the 1990s in particular. However, when containment fails or, as with IS, Iran perceives the threat level as too high, Tehran resorts to offense.
Iranian offensive counterterrorism is both unilateral and multilateral. The country has put boots on the ground, including both IRGC and Artesh, in Iraq and Syria. It leads the “Resistance Axis,” which brings together Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah to fight IS, while also working with Shia militias in Iraq. In addition to supplying conventional weapons and equipment, Iran has long supplied Hezbollah with drone technology and, more recently, has provided the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Shia militias with drones (Haaretz, June 7). Furthermore, while Iran claims its drones are striking terrorist targets, as it did in August, when it reported IRGC drones had hit IS armored vehicles and operatives in proximity to the Iraq-Syria border, there is evidence to suggest this is not the UAVs’ only use (Khabar Online, August 24). They have also been deployed against U.S. and coalition targets (al-Jazeera, June 21).
In its eastern border region, Iran has expanded its counterterrorism operations since the June 2017 Tehran attacks. To this end, the country has deployed a number of drones in the Sistan-Balochestan province. In summer 2017, Pakistani authorities claimed they had shot down an Iranian drone operating in their airspace, which Iranian news outlets reported had been deployed to conduct counterterrorism operations (Jam News, June 22).
With the emergence of modern terrorist groups in Iran since the 1940s, Iran has deployed every tool at its disposal to secure its territory and population from large-scale terrorist attacks. The rise of IS in its neighborhood in summer 2014 and the summer 2017 IS attacks in Tehran further reinforced the idea within the country’s political and security establishments that IS, and other Sunni terrorist groups, pose a vital threat to the country. To this end, they have deployed their country’s growing drone capabilities to counter it.
 For a detailed account of Iran’s counterterrorism apparatus, see The Journal of Strategic Studies (February 6, 2017)