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Russia and beyond: Why Iran builds overseas drone factories

Russia and beyond: Why Iran builds drone factories in other countries
6 min read
13 February, 2023
Analysis: Iran's drone facilities abroad help it to evade sanctions and attacks, empower allies, and shorten supply chains.

Iran and Russia are reportedly planning to build a large drone factory on Russian soil to manufacture thousands of Iranian explosive-laden drones, similar to the ones Moscow has repeatedly used against Ukraine.

Since last August, Tehran has delivered hundreds of Shahed-136 loitering munitions (self-detonating explosive-laden drones) to Moscow. Russia has used them for attacks against Ukraine's electricity grid and cities. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, on 5 January a high-level Iranian delegation visited an empty site in the Russian town of Yelabuga, where they plan on building a factory for manufacturing up to 6,000 drones. According to the report, that factory will produce a new version of the Shahed-136 that can fly faster and further, making it more difficult for Ukrainian air defences to stop. 

The Russia-based factory remains on the drawing board for now and probably won't begin churning out any new and improved Shaheds anytime soon. Nevertheless, when finished, it will be larger than any other drone production facility Iran has established abroad. 

Last May, Iran inaugurated its first official foreign drone factory in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe. The facility is for producing the Iranian Ababil-2 loitering munition, an explosive-laden drone that can also perform reconnaissance missions. Tehran is also believed to have clandestine facilities in a number of Middle Eastern countries and Venezuela.

Farzin Nadimi, a defence and security analyst and Associate Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the planned Yelabuga facility would be significantly larger than the Tajik facility and other undeclared facilities, which are more like "limited production workshops” rather than fully-equipped factories.

"Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen might have the largest (underground) Iranian drone production facilities outside Iran itself," Nadimi told The New Arab

Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, also noted that the planned Russian facility looks larger and more advanced than the one in Tajikistan, noting that the latter facility focuses on manufacturing the smaller, simpler, and older Ababil-2. 

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"It is also being touted as a facility to potentially develop more advanced drones," Bohl told The New Arab. "As of now, only Syria, Venezuela, Tajikistan, and now Russia have drone facilities, though there are Iranian officials who call for deeper relations with North Korea on this front as well," he added. 

"There are rumours that Iran also wants to open one in Lebanon, though that would, like in Syria, expose it to Israeli airstrikes and risk escalation between Hezbollah and Israel," he said.

Iran's ability to assemble such facilities overseas is also limited by the extensive sanctions campaign levelled against it by the United States, "leaving only countries that are both heavily sanctioned and still ideologically anti-American as possible potential locations to expand its reach".

Tehran has decided to establish various drone production facilities outside Iran for several reasons. 

Syria, Venezuela, Tajikistan, and now Russia have Iranian drone facilities. [Getty]

According to Nadimi, these facilities aim to "empower allies, decentralise sanctioned production, shorten supply chains, and avoid having to ship complete drones".

In some cases, they simply aim "to earn much-needed hard currency" for Tehran.

In the case of the planned Russian facility, Bohl explained that the "primary thrust" is to place Iranian drone production in a place where covert action against it is very difficult.

"Now that Iran is set to build a factory inside Russia itself, Israel (and more distantly, the US) cannot use kinetic power to strike it (as they have in Syria and Iran)," he said. "Adversaries can use cyber-attacks, but even those are riskier against a Russian-based target." 

Furthermore, deepened defence cooperation could allow Moscow and Tehran "to develop military technology that bypasses Western sanctions and makes their militaries more resilient in the face of Western economic pressure".

Furthermore, the Russian factory could aid in the number of drones available to Iran for deployment in proxy theatres against its opponents in the Middle East. 

On the flip side, Bohl anticipates that Iran will face ongoing constraints to transporting drones, such as frequent Israeli strikes against weapons transfers in Syria. It will also have to consider Russian goals and policies when it uses these drones. 

"If Saudi Arabia, for example, is attacked by drones that are traced to this factory (or simply Riyadh blames this factory for such a strike), it could worsen Russo-Saudi relations, which are important to Moscow for the sake of energy price stability and its overall economic goals to retain trade access to partners in the Middle East," he said. 

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"So, while Iran will have a safer factory, it may not always be as willing to utilise said drones if Russia objects," he added. 

There is also the question of how much technical input Russia will require from Iran throughout the construction of this factory and the eventual building of the upgraded Shaheds.

Tehran has maintained a project to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah's missile stockpile in Lebanon and provided technology transfers and detailed instructions to its proxy militias, including the Houthis in Yemen, throughout the region on how to assemble Iranian-designed drones and missiles locally.

In a 2020 interview with Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station, a commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) summed up the overarching goal of these projects by referencing the old proverb: "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime."

Applying that philosophy to the Yelabuga factory could ultimately give Moscow the ability to continue building Iranian drones even if Iran reverses its policy or the current regime in Tehran collapses.

Russia has used Iranian drones for attacks against Ukraine's electricity grid and cities. [Getty]

"It's hard to say just how much this factory will rely on Iran's technical expertise and supply chain without knowing which drones they intend to build and/or develop," Bohl said. "In general, once Russia acquires the technical expertise to develop these drones, Iran's role may no longer be as central in case there is political or policy change in Iran itself," he added. 

"One area where Russia needs to learn the most is how to evade Western sanctions to get the Western (and US) chips that have been found in some of these drones," he added. "If Russia develops that level of sanctions-evasion sophistication, Iran's role in developing these drones will no longer be as critical."

Nadimi anticipates that, despite Iran's long-term strategies, many of these factories are still heavily dependent on Tehran. 

"These factories will require a substantial supply of parts and technical know-how from Iran to continue operation, and, in the case of Houthis, they will continue to depend on Iran's supply chain," he said. 

"I can only assume that with the collapse of the Islamic regime in Iran, many of those production lines and workshops will also cease to exist or will have to switch to Chinese providers."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon