A record number of countries want Iranian drones, Forbes writes. “Today we have reached a point where 22 countries around the world are demanding the purchase of drones from Iran,” Iranian Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi said Oct. 18. Among the countries he mentioned were Serbia and Armenia.
A substantive delivery of Iranian drones to these countries could have significant strategic ramifications for the Balkans and the South Caucasus. For instance, if Serbia purchases Iranian drones, that “could make Belgrade the largest military drone operator in the Balkans,” according to Defense News.
However, there is heavy skepticism among analysts that Belgrade is interested in Iranian drones, with one Serbian aviation writer noting that Serbia already possesses significant capabilities “to cater to its own needs” and “that there is really little Iran could possibly provide it with in terms of either finished UAV products or in know-how.”
Nevertheless, the low price of some Iranian drones – $20,000 is the figure often cited for each unit of the single-use Shahed-136 – could tempt Belgrade to diversify and strengthen its arsenal by buying a number of these drones. Or, Iran might offer Serbia a deal for local production that could help expand Belgrade’s existing drone program relatively cheaply.
“Iran is building a strong market for its loitering munition drone types,” Nicholas Heras, director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute, told me. “The growth in global interest in the Iranian drones is a type of echo of how Turkey developed the international market for its military drone types.”
“The Turks focused on a ‘middle class’ drone type that is intended to be reused, is rugged, and can operate effectively against both state and non-state actors,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, Turkey decided that it would deliver an ‘air force on the cheap’ for state actors looking to skip out on expensive aircraft and the maintenance requirements that come with them.”
“Iran has decided that it wants to corner the market on what are essentially flying, more accurate, further ranged, artillery rounds that can deliver devastating effects on the battlefield, especially against ground forces.”
Such loitering munitions could enable smaller states to pose a crude deterrent to their larger rivals.
“Both the Armenians and the Serbians are in need of the ability to quickly create significant losses to stronger opponents – NATO for Serbia, Azerbaijan for Armenia – and the Iranian loitering munition-type drones could provide that capability,” Heras said.
Iran has a number of these drone types that may interest Belgrade and Yerevan.
“As far as what kind of drones Iran can sell to both Armenia and Serbia – there are a number of options that include both the Shahed and Ababil models since both were used by Iranian proxies in the Middle East, and now Shahed has demonstrated its limited, but key, capacity in Ukraine,” Samuel Bendett, a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, told me. “Other drones like Mohajer are probably not off the table either.”
Then there is the broader political and strategic context behind a potential Armenian procurement.
“Armenia is looking to offset the strengthening Turkish-Azerbaijani military alliance and the perception that Russia may not be as committed to Armenian defense as previously thought,” Bendett said.
“As Turkish and Israeli drone technology contributed to Azerbaijani victory in 2020, Armenia was caught flat-footed even though it actually has its own drone industry that was underinvested in comparison,” he added. “So Armenia is looking to avoid this mistake by investing in UAV capabilities.”
Tehran also has its own interests in helping strengthen Yerevan militarily.
“Iran is also concerned about the Turkish-Azeri alliance and the Israeli angle in this alliance and has claimed before it could throw its weight behind Armenia in the next conflict,” Bendett said. “Iran held military exercises closer to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, indicated that it could use military strength if the Zangezur corridor cuts off its access to Armenia proper, and is looking for its own way to offset the Istanbul-Baku-Tel Aviv relationship.”
Therefore, Armenia becoming a customer of Iranian drones makes a lot of sense from that geostrategic standpoint.
Yerevan also wants drone technology that has proven itself in combat, which could further its interest in Tehran’s UAVs.
“Iranian loitering drones like Shahed-136/1 are a relatively low-cost/high-impact investment in capacity that can potentially pose a challenge to Azerbaijan and maybe even Turkey itself,” Bendett said. “In selling its drones to Armenia, Iran can put both Istanbul and Baku on notice via this proxy sale to Yerevan.”
Any significant supply of Iranian drones to Armenia, or the establishment of a drone factory on Armenian soil like the one in Tajikistan, could further fuel the arms race in the increasingly volatile South Caucasus region.
“As far as the overall impact of such sales on the regional dynamics – in the Caucasus, all countries are already arming themselves with drone technology, either imported or indigenous,” Bendett said. “Armenia’s acquisition of Iranian drones could bolster its defenses and may act as a potential deterrent given that Shahed drones can strike targets many hundreds of kilometers away.”
“The regional drone race is well underway and is not expected to slow down any time soon.”