How the ‘AK-47 of Tehran’ changed warfare and set fire to the Middle East

In the summer of September 2013, a handful of journalists with close ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were summoned to a secretive ceremony in an aircraft hangar.

Waiting for them in the hangar on a pea-green floor, which looked a bit like a repurposed school gymnasium, were two brand new aircraft in white and blue livery, marked with the number “129.”

To the journalists charged with taking photographs of that new kit, ahead of a big announcement by the Revolutionary Guard, it may have felt like just another routine assignment.

But this was no ordinary plane: this was the Shahed (Witness in Persian), a deadly long-range drone that in the decade to come would wreak havoc across the Middle East and beyond.

‘Iran’s most strategic unmanned plane’

“Our scientists, through scientific struggle, have built Iran’s most strategic unmanned plane,” declared General Mohammad Ali Jafari, then the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard. “This smart technology can do the job of thousands of soldiers, military posts and border guards…and protect the security of the borders.”

It was a bold claim for a regime with a reputation for building dubious imitations of superior Western drones; in 2011, the Iranians had also managed to capture a US RQ-170 which was reverse engineered some years later to make another drone in the Iranian fleet, the Simorgh.

RQ-170 Sentinal drone. Iran's military said December 4, 2011 that it shot down a US Reconnaissance drone in eastern IranRQ-170 Sentinal drone. Iran's military said December 4, 2011 that it shot down a US Reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran

The RQ-170 Sentinal drone. Iran’s military said December 4, 2011 that it shot down a US Reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran

This time, however, General Jafari was proven right, as the Shahed became what one expert has called the “AK-47” of Tehran: cheap, mass produced and ready to be exported worldwide to conflict zones where the regime has a vested interest.

The menace of the Shahed was underlined this week after it was, according to US officials, unleashed on their desert outpost of Tower 22 in Jordan.

Emitting its distinctive, lawnmower-like whirr, the drone was launched by an Iranian-backed militia group in Iraq and somehow evaded US air defences before crashing into the barracks, killing three US soldiers and injuring a further 25.

The next day, US TV screens were broadcasting the names, ranks, ages and photographs of the slain troops – Specialist Breonna Alexsondria Moffett, 23, Specialist Kennedy Ladon Sanders, 24, and Sergeant William Jerome Rivers, 46 – as they did during the darker days of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. It was the moment that the latest war in the Middle East was brought home to America.

‘Most deadly attack since October 17’

US officials called it the “the most deadly attack since Oct 17,” the date when armed groups across the Middle East started attacking US forces in retaliation for Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas. It was also, they said, an “an escalation of significance” – raising the spectre of direct conflict with Iran.

The Shahed had been used many times by Iranian proxies before in the Middle East, notably by Houthi militia groups who relied on it against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and more recently in a string of attacks on Western commercial ships in the Red Sea. The Syrian regime’s drone fleet is also reported to include Shaheds.

A Shahed-136 drone was, according to US officials, used in the notorious July 2021 drone attack by Iran on the Mercer Street vessel in the Red Sea, which killed a Romanian sailor and a British security guard.

Perhaps most significantly, it is being exported en masse to Russia for use in Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine as part of a shadowy new security alliance with Moscow.

In Ukraine, the sound of a Shahed grumbling through the skies signals an imminent explosion and, frequently, civilian casualties. Fitted with warheads of up to 50kg and with a range of up to 2,000 kilometres, the Russians have mainly been relying on Shaheds to attack energy grids and grain storehouses.

A September 2023 report by Airwars, a British investigative news website, found that nearly 2,000 Shaheds have been launched at Ukraine from Russia since that month.

Iranian drones particularly attractive to Russia

Ulrike Franke, a drone expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Iranian drones like the Shahed were particularly attractive to Russia because they were already battle tested in the Middle East and easy to ship in huge quantities.

“Iran has a long history of building these smaller and less sophisticated drones and testing them around the world,” she said. “What is surprising is the sheer numbers, they are giving out hundreds and hundreds which were either quickly produced or already in their arsenal.”

Experts like Dr Franke stress that drones are not strategic weapons, in the sense of being able to decide the overall outcome of the war in Ukraine. However, “they bring an element of surprise that other elements cannot – they are a nuisance to the point it can become a new problem.”

They are also a drain on the enemy’s resources, she added: “The munition used to shoot them down tends to be more expensive than the drone itself.”

Ukrainian forces have also been hard at work developing EV (electronic warfare) solutions to incoming drones, such as jamming their GPS so they cannot reach their target. Then there are the old fashioned, and sometimes most effective, methods – such as putting up huge nets around a base to block small aircraft.

Ukraine's president Zelensky with the Shahed droneUkraine's president Zelensky with the Shahed drone

Ukraine’s president Zelensky with the Shahed drone

As for the attack in Jordan on US troops, some reports suggest this was more a case of a US security failure than an Iranian triumph; staff on the base may have mistaken the Shahed for a US drone and allowed it to pass.

While the Iranian regime admits to sending the drones to Russia – after initial denials – Russia continues to brand them as a domestic “Geran” drone model.

Russia ran out of Shahed drones just a few months after Iran began the supplies in spring 2022, prompting the Kremlin to look for ways to ramp up production and, if possible, set up the manufacturing locally.

Undergraduate students roped into building drones in Russia

Russian media outlet Razvorot last year reported that several hundred undergraduate students had been roped into assembling Shaheds at a production line in Alabuga in the region of Tatarstan about 1,000 kilometres east from Moscow.

Internal memos and email exchanges with Iranian partners showed that the factory floor at Alabuga is planned to be expanded from 40,000 sq. metres to 100,00 sq. metres in the next two years. Production figures were not revealed.

military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drone) on display during a ceremony at an undisclosed location in Iranmilitary unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drone) on display during a ceremony at an undisclosed location in Iran

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) on display during a ceremony in Iran – AFP

Unnamed students of a technical school affiliated with a local university said several hundreds of their peers, mostly underage, had been coerced into working at the factory as an extracurricular activity.

Those who tried to refuse working on the drone assembly line were reportedly threatened that they would be expelled from school and would also have to pay back the scholarship they had been given.

Students were reportedly paid around 40,000 rubles (£350) a month for assembling the drones.

As early as October 2022, Tehran reportedly sent members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Crimea to help Russian forces use the one-way attack drones Moscow provided.

The widespread Russian use of the drones in Ukraine “provides Iran opportunities to learn valuable lessons that can be used to refine their drone designs and better employ them,” according to Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

‘Same type of drones used against American forces in Middle East’

He added: “We see some of those same types of drones being used against American forces in the Middle East. Iranian drones are not just a problem for Ukrainians. They are a problem for Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners, too.”

Mr Bowman said: “The Shahed 136 is not exactly the most advanced drone in the world. But that’s the point, you can accomplish very significant things on the battlefield with low technology, low cost systems, especially if you can employ them in large quantities.”

“The broader implication here is that we have Iranian weapons being used in Ukraine to kill men, women and children in their homes, and then the same Iranian weapons are being used to try to kill American forces in the Middle East.”

“America’s four leading nation state adversaries are increasingly aligned and increasingly coordinating with one another to undermine us and our allies.”

“Russia and China are closer than they have been for decades. We see Chinese money flowing into Iran. That Chinese money is going to help immunise Iran to some degree against Western, US-led sanctions pressure, making it even less likely that Tehran will ever negotiate in good faith about its nuclear program.”

“This smart technology can do the job of thousands of soldiers, military posts and border guards...and protect the security of the borders.”“This smart technology can do the job of thousands of soldiers, military posts and border guards...and protect the security of the borders.”

‘This smart technology can do the job of thousands of soldiers, military posts and border guards…and protect the security of the borders.’ – NurPhoto

By the time that the Shahed was placed in Russian stockpiles, various Iranian drone models were already well integrated into the arsenals of Iran’s proxies, a vast network across the Middle East of militia groups that receive funding and expertise from Tehran.

Hezbollah has mixed ‘family’ of drones

The Houthis have relied on Shahed and Samad drones (the latter reputedly of Iranian origin) throughout the Yemen civil war, while various Iranian-backed factions in Iraq and Syria hold an unknown number of Shaheds. Israeli officials say that Hezbollah in southern Lebanon has a mixed “family” of drones, likely including models such as the Shahed.

Hamas in the Gaza Strip has a drone fleet of sorts, but it is less clear whether it contains Iranian-made models. Hamas has sporadically launched crude, possibly homemade drones in recent years, and may have used them to carry out surveillance of southern Israel prior to the Oct 7 massacre.

In all cases, however, experts say it is clear that Iranian expertise has likely supported these programmes across the Middle East.

And Iran’s drone production programme seems to be gaining pace. In August 2023, Tehran revealed a new model of the Mohajer (Immigrant in Persian), fitted with a 200 kilogram warhead, which it claimed was capable of bombing Israel “into the Stone Age.”

For Seth J. Frantzman, a Middle East security analyst and the author of “Drone Wars,” the mass export of these Iranian models is “already looking like nascent stages of the AK-47 trafficking of the Soviet Union.”

The Shahed itself is also starting to become a symbol of sorts for the anti-Israel factions, added Mr Frantzman, “We’re starting to see that these groups are, more and more, embracing the drone and discussing it in propaganda than they had done a few years ago.”

Long-running intelligence debate

There has been a long-running debate in intelligence circles over how much control Iran maintains over its drones, and how they are used, once they arrive in the hands of their proxies.

Mr Frantzman pointed to the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, the revered Iranian IRGC leader who was killed by the Trump Administration, as a clear sign that Tehran coordinates very closely with its proxies.

“Remember that Soleimani was killed in Baghdad airport – he was driving with the head of Kataib Hezbollah (an Iranian-backed group led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), so it’s clear they were seen planning operations together,” he said.

Iran is yet to face any severe military consequences for arming the Russians and its various proxies, though a major retaliation from President Joe Biden over the attack in Jordan is expected to take place in the near future.

It will most likely take the form of an attack on Iranian or Iranian-backed forces inside Iraq, as bombing Iran itself would risk a tremendous escalation in the conflict.

Those with a more hawkish view on Iran have increased calls for direct action against the regime. They argue that for too long the West has allowed Tehran and its proxies to operate in the shadows across the Middle East with impunity – though the regime is subject to crippling sanctions over human rights abuses and its nuclear programme.

“In killing US soldiers, the regime in Iran has greatly overreached itself. It must now be put back into place,” wrote Kasra Aarabi, director of IRGC research at United Against Nuclear Iran, in a recent op-ed for the Telegraph. “This must now be remedied. Weakness emboldens the Iranian regime; strength cows it.”

A decade on from that portentous ceremony in September 2013, where the Shahed was unveiled, it has become a terror of the skies over two continents.

It could also be argued that the story of the Shahed mirrors Iran’s expanding influence across the Middle East and Europe: secretive, low-cost, and more geared towards disruption than mass-destruction.

As for General Jafari, he is now quietly retired in Iran, where he lives under US and UK sanctions – but the legacy of his “scientific struggle” drones on.

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In the summer of September 2013, a handful of journalists with close ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were summoned to a secretive ceremony in an aircraft hangar. Waiting for them in the hangar on a pea-green floor, which looked a bit like a repurposed school gymnasium, were two brand new aircraft in white and blue…

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