Iranwire – On Friday, August 6 the foreign ministers of the G7 countries issued a damning joint statement blaming Iran for an apparent drone attack on a merchant vessel off the coast of Oman on 29 July, which killed a British and a Romanian national.
Representatives for the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, the European Union and the US said of the strike on the MV Mercer Street: ”This was a deliberate and targeted attack, and a violation of international law. All available evidence clearly points to Iran.”
The condemnation came shortly after Israel’s Foreign and Defense Ministers, Yair Lapid and Bani Gantz, publicly named Saeed Aghajani, who is also commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ drone unit, as the mastermind behind the explosion on the cargo ship.
In 2019, exiled opposition group the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) named Aghajani as one of the IRGC commanders with a hand in drone strikes on two Saudi oil installations that September. Before the attack, the MEK said, he and other commanders had been sent to the IRGC’s Omidiyeh base, 85 km from Ahvaz in Khuzestan, to direct the attack.
Despite all the other shortcomings of its domestic military, Iran has come to be recognized as a significant global power in armed drones. Thus far this capacity has been used, as the G7 ministers stated, in the service of “irresponsible and violent acts” that threaten regional peace and stability. How did we get here?
‘Toys’ Deployed in the Iran-Iraq War
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program began in 1984. It gathered pace at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, although some early UAVs had previously been used by the Iranian armed forces during the Shah’s time.
The film Mohajer (“The Immigrant”, 1990), directed by Ebrahim Hatamikia, was one of the early cultural manifestations of the rise of Iranian-made drones. Set in the marshes between Iran and Iraq, it was an oblique examination of early-generation Qods Mohajer drone fighters as deployed during the war. Despite the cloaking device of a fictional plotline, it was denied screening permission in Iran because it revealed how rudimentary those early drones really were.
Hamid Aghajani, the IRGC commander blamed by Israel for the MV Mercer Street attack, just so happens to have been one of the founders of the IRGC’s UAV unit. He, too, has said that the early drones were essentially “a toy”. “We cut the ionolite following the drone’s design,” he said in an interview, “made its arches, then covered it over with walnut wood and glued it together. The drone was then ready.”
Faramarz Abdoust, another co-founder of the UAV unit, has said that in the Iran-Iraq war, army reconnaissance planes and fighter jets would first have to take aerial photographs of Iraqi positions. This method was so crude the air force ended up writing to Iran’s then-Higher Defense Council saying it would no longer be doing it.
In 1984, the Jihad University of Isfahan, under the management of one Ali Ghomi, finally began to build small drones equipped with cameras. These were the first real Iranian UAVs deployed in the war and laid the groundwork for the formation of a specialized IRGC unit known as Raad (thunder).
With the formation of the IRGC Aerospace Force in 1985, Raad, together with the Guards’ Hadid missile unit, came under the control of the Aerospace Force. The first commander of this battalion was Majid Mokhtarzadeh, followed by Faramarz Abdoust, Sadegh Forouzandeh, Seyed Mojtaba Mahrou, and finally Hamid Aghajani. The IRGC’s Quds Aviation Industry Company was also established in 1985, specialising in building AUVs.
During the Iran-Iraq war, these drones’ only purpose was reconnaissance. But also in that time, efforts were being made to equip them with RPGs and build missile launcher helicopters. The 1990s then saw the creation of the Mohajer-2 drone, heralding the arrival of combat UAVs in the Islamic Republic’s arsenal.
Armed Drones a Key Component of Iran’s Proxy Warfare Arsenal
After the war the Quds Aviation Industry Company continued to produce drones under the auspices of the government’s Defense Industries Training and Research Institute. A great deal of restructuring later, both the IRGC and the armed forces have their own UAV units.
In recent years, the IRGC has announced the creation of a multitude of types of UAVs. Some of the claims are exaggerated, while according to some reports, the engines of many of these new models drones, including the Ababil-3, are built in Europe. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that an image shared by Iranian state media of a drone supposedly just made by Iran was in fact a Photoshopped image of a model from Chiba University in Japan.
The long-range, jet-powered drone Karrar, which was built in 2010, has long been regarded by analysts of one of the Islamic Republic’s most significant. The Sarir, Epic, Shahed 129, and Fotros drones, all built for the IRGC, also have combat capabilities. These have in turn been put to use against the US and Israel; in 2011 the Islamic Republic announced it had successfully grounded a US-operated drone, and officials set about making copies of it.
In the crossfire that has ensued since then, a few incidents have been particularly revealing. In October 2012 Israeli fighters shot down a drone whose parts, Hezbollah later claimed, had been made in Iran, while the assembly had been done in Lebanon.
In February 2021, Hezbollah then claimed to have piloted and taken control of an Israeli military drone that had flown over southern Lebanon.
And from Lebanon, Iranian drones have also been provided to the Islamic Republic’s proxy forces in Bahrain. In April 2018, the UAE Army also declared the seizure of an Iranian-made drone in Yemen.
Iran’s Mohajer and Ababil drones have also been present in Syria throughout the civil war. In 2014, Islamic State claimed to have acquired an Iranian drone in Iraq.