Conflict & Justice

Iran has a new toy: Drone proliferation continues


An Iranian-made drone is paraded during the Army Day celebrations in Tehran in 2010. The new Shahed-129 unmanned aerial vehicle doubles the range of this one, and can hit just about anywhere in the Middle East – including Israel.



International concerns over Iran’s amped up military presence and covert nuclear program are likely to worsen with the Iranian aerospace division’s recent unveiling of its newest military tool.

The Shahed-129 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is Iran’s newest domestically made drone, capable of reaching targets up to 2,000 kilometers away, which includes just about anywhere in the Middle East, as well as Israel. This model doubles the range of previous drones, but bears some similarities to the US RQ Sentential UAV that crashed on Iranian territory in 2011.

The release of the vehicle and Iran’s continued military muscle flexing perhaps holds new weight after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent attendance at the UN General Assembly. In an interview for CNN last week he warned that Iran would readily defend itself against Israeli threats and Western encroachment on critical uranium enrichment sites, saying, “Any nation has the right and will indeed defend herself.”

The news of the new drone coincided with Iran’s testing of four new rocket missiles in what has been called the biggest air defense war game in the nation’s history by London’s Telegraph newspaper. The Revolutionary Guard’s General Fadavi was quoted by the Fars new agency as saying the missiles are capable of sinking warships in under a minute, reported the Associated Press.

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Though the new military tools certainly have considerable implications for the nation’s reconnaissance and defense potential, the extent to which they will be practically implemented in combat is difficult to gauge. It’s no news that Iran is publicly announcing its most recent military developments, but the Islamic Republic seems to be taking a particularly pointed stance in informing the international community that a threat against Iran would trigger grave outcomes.

Mohsen Rezai of Iran’s Expediency Council made clear the seriousness with which the Iranian military would react in event of an Israeli attack. "I have heard [the Israeli government] have estimated that 400 to 500 people in Israel would be killed,” he said, according to the Telegraph. “They are wrong—Iran's reaction would be so severe that nobody would ever dare think of attacking us again.”

While the international security ramifications of the Shahed-129 and air missiles remain a hot topic in international media, their technological ramifications are not as widely discussed. Iran’s development of drone technology reflects the sweeping prevalence of unmanned combative planes in current day warfare. Drone technology has become a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and counter-terrorism initiative, and now UAV research and development seems to be moving east.

Israeli UAV manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) has developed drones for more than 50 years but only recently began engineering armed drones for international military use. According to the Defense Industry Daily, the government owned company has been working with countries such as Turkey, Russia, and Egypt in contracting Israeli made drones — namely IAI Heron models — for military use. With the changing landscape of modern day defense technology, a demand for UAVs is likely to continue to grow.

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IAI of course develops military drones for the Israeli Air Force, too. Last February Israel announced its newest model and member of the Heron family, the Eitan Boeing 737, which was publicized globally for its ability to reach distances as far as Iran. Sound familiar? Israel’s new long-range UAV technology sparked a regional outrage and upped the ante for long-range drone development, despite the oversight that most combat planes can refuel in the air.

In the wake of the Iran’s new Shahed-129 model and military development, President Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly speaking out against the threat of a nuclear Iran and addressing the need for a global effort to keep the state in check.

Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s right to preemptively attack Iran has fanned the flames of the prospect of a regional conflict arising from the paranoid security dilemma between the two countries. Whatever materializes from the tense regional relations, the involvement of UAVs is expected to continue to play a pivotal role in both states’ strategies. 

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of drones, check out our Special Report "The Drone Age: Why We Should Fear Global Proliferation of UAVs."