Q&A: Why Iranian Drones Are Appealing to Belarus, Bolivia

Iran is getting a boost to its status as an international arms supplier.

Tehran hosted defense ministers from Bolivia and Belarus in July and early August to discuss military cooperation with its fellow anti-American allies.

Bolivia later said it is interested in obtaining Iranian drone technology, while U.S. research group the Institute for the Study of War said the visit likely indicates Belarus wants to do the same.

The U.S. and Ukraine say Iranian drones have been a key weapon for Russia in the war it has waged against Ukraine since last year, something both Moscow and Tehran have denied.

James Rogers, a war historian who advises the United Nations and NATO on drone warfare and serves as executive director of Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute, discussed Iran’s efforts to expand the market for its drones in this week’s edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Iran podcast.

The following transcript of Rogers’ August 6 interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: What can you say about the strength of international demand for Iran’s military drone industry?

James Rogers, Cornell Tech Policy Institute: The demand for Iranian drones is growing at a record rate. And this is something that is happening globally. It’s not just an Iranian phenomenon. Any nation that has pivoted its industry toward the production of drones is seeing a massive increase in demand for those systems. Turkey is another example. China also produces a large array of drone systems.

As I said to the United Nations Security Council in August 2022, we are starting to worry about the current and future state of international security. By our latest calculations, my colleagues and I think around 113 nation states have access to military drone technologies or have a military drone program. And that is just the nation states. We believe at the very least that 65 violent nonstate actor groups have access to these systems as well. So this is the proliferation of violent airpower globally.

VOA: What is making Iranian drones particularly appealing to countries like Bolivia and maybe even Belarus?

Rogers: It is a question that is steeped in history and goes back to the 1980s. So Iran, after the shah is deposed [in the 1979 Islamic revolution], is left with these big-ticket, high-tech items of piloted aircraft and tanks. But with the withdrawal of Western technical support for these systems [after the revolution], they are pretty much useless. And any pilot who could fly away, did.

Iran is left in a very difficult situation. It quickly gets embroiled in the Iran-Iraq War and it needs to have the capacity to fight that war. So from the early 1980s, Iran turns towards these cheaper, easier to manufacture, easy to use systems that will give them a rudimentary, albeit powerful, air power capability. And this is where the drones are born. So Iran is not new to this game. They have been developing drones for decades.

Skipping ahead to the current day, we can see that Iranian drones are having a massive impact in Russia’s offensive war against Ukraine. This war has acted as a shop window for Iran, showing just how powerful its Shahed 136 and Shahed 131 loitering munitions can be, in terms of fulfilling Russian military aims. This is exactly why other countries want to buy Iranian drones, because they believe the drones are effective systems and want to get a slice of that pie.

VOA: Russia’s ally, Belarus, apparently is interested in having Iranian drones produced on its territory, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War this month. Belarus did not immediately confirm that report. What do you think is the reality?

Rogers: There are two points to make. First, there is a relationship between Belarus and Iran in which Iranian drones are being launched, we believe, from Belarus into Ukraine. That likely means there are Iranian personnel either inside Belarus training Russian operatives or stationed further back inside Russia. Either way, we can see that there already is a direct link between these Iranian military systems and Belarus.

Second, one problem Russia has had is making sure that there are secure supply lines of Iranian drones. Russia needs hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Securing those supplies has become incredibly difficult because the U.S. has put very stringent and heavily enforced trade embargoes on Russia and Iran. So how do you get around this?

One of the options is to build a Shahed 136 loitering munition factory in Belarus. Then you can make the drones exactly where you are firing from, and you are reducing the distance from the tail of your logistics to the teeth of your firepower. That is exactly what Russia is going to want to do to make gains in the war against Ukraine.

VOA: Looking elsewhere, Bolivia has said publicly that it is interested in Iranian drones. How likely is it that Bolivia will acquire them?

Rogers: It is certainly a possibility. We have seen attempts by Bolivia and Venezuela to strengthen their connections with Iran as allies against what they see as the imperialism of the United States and the West. So sharing expertise and even military equipment is plausible. In Venezuela, they were talking about building Iranian drone factories there 12 years ago. Some reports say these have become quite successful drone factories.

For me, it is a worrying prospect. We have seen the proliferation of drones across Europe. We are increasingly seeing that proliferation across Africa. We saw that Iran supplied drone systems to Ethiopia [in 2021] when the West and the United States would not get involved in their civil war against Tigray rebels. So, what we are seeing now is the even further spread of drone systems to South America.

VOA: Bolivia says it wants these drones to monitor its border regions. How concerning would its acquisition of Iranian drones be for the security of the region and the U.S.?

Rogers: For the United States, it will be a worrying prospect. Iranian operatives, training and technology will follow these military systems into Bolivia if it purchases them. Iranians would be involved in training Bolivian officials or officers in piloting these drone systems.

But it all depends on what type of Iranian drone they purchase. Bolivia’s Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo Aguilar has said that these drones would be used to monitor its border regions and provide real time footage for its armed forces. If that is the case, there is less to worry about.

If these are armed systems or loitering munitions that have an extended range of up to 2,500 kilometers, that brings a number of targets theoretically into range. Argentina is more worried about this. It shares a border with Bolivia and has demanded more information and transparency about what drone systems the Bolivians want to buy. Argentina wants to know what capability would be bordering it. Because of this, Argentina is looking to acquire Israeli systems. [Editor’s note: Argentina signed a contract to buy Israeli company Uvision’s Hero-120 and Hero-30 loitering munitions in December.] So, you can see ideological divides playing out through the different acquisitions of military technologies across South America.  

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