On May 17, 2022, Iran inaugurated a drone factory in neighboring Tajikistan. The factory is officially Iran’s first drone production facility abroad and will manufacture and export the Ababil-2, a multipurpose drone with reconnaissance, combat, and suicide capabilities. With this factory, Iran intends to reinforce bilateral relations and reduce recent tensions with Tajikistan, address shared security concerns on the Afghan border, boost profits in a growing export market, and complicate Israeli efforts to further sabotage its drone program.  

Iran’s new drone factory stands to strengthen its political and economic relations with Tajikistan. Since Iran became the first country to recognize Tajikistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, these relations, despite occasional rifts, have generally stood strong due to geographical, cultural, and linguistic affinities. Iran and Tajikistan possess a common Iranic identity and speak variants of the Persian language. Since 1991, Iranian cultural centers, media outlets, and publishing houses have contributed to the renaissance of the Persian language and culture in Tajikistan. Both countries have established and expanded diplomatic relations through their respective embassies. During the Tajikistani Civil War (1992-97), Iran, with the support of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, brokered a cease-fire between the warring factions.

Iran has long provided Tajikistan with foreign direct investment (FDI) for infrastructure and energy projects, such as the Anzob or Istiqlol Tunnel and the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power plant. This was especially the case under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13). Now, with President Ebrahim Raisi at the helm, Iran’s drone factory is continuing this tradition. The factory is also a means for Tehran to offer valuable technology transfer and technical knowhow to Dushanbe for commercial and military purposes. In addition to Iran’s FDI and technology, its drone factory could help bolster trade with Tajikistan, a fellow member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Between 1997 and 2018, this trade remained relatively low, averaging 0.21% of Iran’s total trade; only 0.17% of Iranian exports go to Tajikistan and only 0.03% of its imports come from there. On Feb. 10, 2022, approximately two months before Iran opened the factory in Tajikistan, both countries agreed to increase bilateral trade, which already had more than doubled from around $55 million in 2020 to $121 million in 2021. This sudden and sharp increase followed or coincided with visits by Presidents Hassan Rouhani (2013-21) and Raisi to Dushanbe in June 2019 and September 2021, respectively, to reprioritize bilateral relations.

Combined with other forms of cooperation, Iran’s drone factory could mitigate tensions between its theocratic state and Shi’a-majority society, on one side, and Dushanbe’s secular state and Sunni-majority society, on the other. During Rouhani’s presidency, these tensions were exacerbated by a series of diplomatic incidents. In 2013, Tehran accused the National Bank of Tajikistan of cooperating with an Iranian business magnate, Babak Zanjani, who was subsequently sentenced to death by an Iranian court for allegedly embezzling over $2.7 billion that belonged to the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum. In 2015, Dushanbe condemned Tehran for inviting the Tajik-Islamist opposition leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, to attend a conference at an Iranian seminary and to meet with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In 2016, Iran-Tajikistan relations reached a nadir when Dushanbe cited legal technicalities to suspend the local operations of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, a Tehran-based charity supported by the Iranian government. This move likely aimed to punish Iran for having hosted Kabiri. Despite mounting tensions, relations warmed under Rouhani after the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, which prompted his government to prioritize neighboring countries and to pivot toward the East. Picking up where his predecessor left off, Raisi could leverage the drone factory in Tajikistan to further cement bilateral ties and counter the influence in the country of Saudi Arabia, an SCO dialogue partner. As tensions escalated between Iran and Tajikistan during Rouhani’s presidency, high-level exchanges and other activities between Dushanbe and Riyadh intensified. As a consequence, and following up on his visit to Tajikistan in September 2021, Raisi met with his Tajik counterpart in Tehran on May 30, 2022, nearly two weeks after the factory opened, to discuss deepening bilateral cooperation in various fields.

Militarily, the factory will facilitate defense cooperation between Iran and Tajikistan in terms of drone technology and other equipment as they gear up to coordinate exercises and operations involving Afghanistan, which borders both countries. These exercises and operations will seek to contain a resurgent Taliban and combat extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan Province. Also in the crosshairs are organized crime and drug trafficking in Afghanistan, which produces 80% of the world’s opium supply. For Iran, deploying drones to Afghanistan for military purposes would not be unprecedented. During the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, the Islamic Republic used drones in Afghanistan for reconnaissance missions. Since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia’s military base in Tajikistan, which supports the Tajik Armed Forces, has suffered a shortage of manpower and equipment, including reconnaissance drones. It was this shortage that purportedly prompted Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense to sign a contract with its Iranian counterpart to construct the drone factory in Dushanbe.

Aside from reinforcing relations with Dushanbe, Iran built the factory to boost its drone exports to Tajikistan and other countries that are not under U.S. sanctions. At the inauguration ceremony, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri stated, “We are in a position that, apart from meeting our domestic need, we can export military equipment to allied and friendly countries to help increase security and sustainable peace.” Ever since the U.N. arms embargo against Iran expired in October 2020 and Raisi came into office in August 2021, the Islamic Republic has sought out buyers for its military drones beyond its predominantly quasi- or non-state partners and proxies in the region. Approximately one month after the expiration of the embargo, Iran reportedly transferred to Venezuela the technology for the Mohajer-6 surveillance and combat drone. A drone resembling the Mohajer-6 was sighted one year later during a televised speech by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (2013-present). In late 2001, Iran had made similar arrangements with Venezuela to produce the Mohajer-2 reconnaissance drone. During Raisi’s first month as president in August 2021, Iran purportedly delivered two Mohajer-6s and military aid to Ethiopia for use in the Tigray War (2020-present). To round out its drone fleet against Tigrayan rebels, the Ethiopian government also reportedly imported armed drones from Iran’s regional competitors, including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

For the time being and compared with Turkey, Iran commands a smaller share of the global military drone market, which had an estimated value in 2021 of $11.25 billion, a figure expected to reach $26.12 billion by 2028. Turkey, which ranks seventh in the market with revenues of $2.2 billion as of April 2022, has exported the Bayraktar TB2 and other drones to multiple countries — including some that border Iran and Tajikistan — in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. In fact, one of the likely motivations behind Iran’s drone factory in Dushanbe is competition with Turkey in the Tajik and Central Asian market. In April 2022, several weeks before Iran inaugurated the factory, Turkey reportedly sold the TB2 to Tajikistan. This sale aroused concerns in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which had purchased the TB2 the previous year and has clashed with Tajikistan over border disputes and illegal crossings.

Regardless of the geopolitical and economic benefits that Iran’s drone factory may offer, it risks being targeted by regional rivals like Israel. Since at least early 2022, Israel has been suspected of sabotaging similar factories and facilities in Iran. In February, six attack drones reportedly destroyed hundreds of Iranian drones at an airbase outside the western city of Kermanshah. On Feb. 4 and March 8, two explosions occurred at a drone factory in the northwestern city of Tabriz. On May 25, a suicide drone exploded at the Parchin military complex, which is located 37 miles southeast of Tehran and develops drone, missile, and nuclear technology. While no one claimed responsibility for these attacks, they bore all the hallmarks of Israeli operations. Assuming this is the case, it remains to be seen whether Tel Aviv, which established diplomatic relations with Dushanbe in April 1992, will refrain from striking the factory out of respect for Tajikistan’s national sovereignty or proceed anyway, undaunted by the prospect of diplomatic backlash.

 

Eric Lob is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University and a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by Iranian Army/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images