Despite facing heavy sanctions, Iran has managed to build a burgeoning arms industry over the last decade, becoming proficient in producing cost-effective ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This growth raises concerns, particularly in light of Iran’s arms exports to countries like Syria, Venezuela, and Russia, as well as allegations of exports to various armed factions throughout the Middle East. As with much of the global arms trade, these exports raise worries regarding human rights violations and the heightened risk of civilian casualties in conflicts across these areas. Compounding the issue is Iran’s decision not to sign the Arms Trade Treaty, which is designed to regulate and curtail illegal arms trades. Without being party to this treaty, Iran is not subject to its constraints, which exacerbates fears about the potential for the weapons it exports to be misused.
Following the tumultuous events of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran over time became one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world. This was largely due to the long-held belief among Western countries that the Iranian regime sought to develop nuclear weapons and other sophisticated weapons technologies. In line with this, in 2007 and 2015 two significant embargoes were placed upon Iran by the UN Security Council to restrict its ability to import and export arms.
Recent events, however, changed this status quo.
On October 18th, 2020, the 2007 embargo – or Resolution 1747 – expired. This expiration subsequently allowed Iran to import and export conventional arms. Moreover, the expiration of Resolution 2231 on October 18th, 2023, – a resolution that imposed restrictions on Iran’s import and export of components for ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – has further raised concerns in the international community.
Iran’s Growing Arms Industry
Despite the years of sanctions placed upon it, Iran has reportedly managed to develop a growing global arms industry, especially over the past decade. According to the Iranian regime, “5,000 knowledge-based companies are cooperating with its defense industry to develop innovative weapons.” This includes an estimated 200 to 240 production sites spread across Iran and other countries such as Syria, Tajikistan, and Venezuela. To some, this is a clear demonstration of Iran’s ambition and ability to expand its military capabilities in defiance of the international restrictions imposed on it.
As for the type of arms that have been produced, Iran is believed to have specialised in developing cost-effective ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Iranian drones reportedly cost between $20,000 to $50,000, significantly lower than their Russian counterparts which can cost as much as $3 million. The most prominent Iranian UAVs include the Shahed and Mohajer line of drones, with latest models being unveiled in 2021 and 2023 respectively. As for ballistic missiles, the Fateh-110, Zolfaghar, and Qiam-1 are among the most notable Iranian heavy weaponry.
According to the United Institute Of Peace (UIOP), Iran has been covertly exporting these UAVs and ballistic missiles to a variety of armed groups various armed groups in the Middle East. These groups include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kata’ib Hizballah in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, all of whom were listed as terrorist organisations by U.S. Department of State, with the Houthis only being removed from the list in 2021. Consequently, Iran has long been called a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
The Iranian regime has consistently denied these claims. In 2020, its ambassador and permanent representative to the UN stated that the “Islamic Republic of Iran strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms…” However, data from the reliable Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), shows that, in 2017, Iran supplied Houthi rebels in Yemen with 10 Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missiles. Since 2018, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of over 50 militias in Iraq, including Kata’ib Hizballah, are also believed to have received short-range ballistic missiles from Tehran, including the Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar missiles.
On June 14, 2023, The Islamic Republic News Agency, the official news agency of Iran, reported that the PMF had unveiled their most recent drone delivery from Iran, featuring the new Mohajer-6 drone. The threat posed by Iran’s arms exports to various militias within the PMF is rooted in claims that these missiles and drones have been used in attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq. For example, Reuters recently reported that on October 18th, 2023 Iran-backed militias were implicated in drone attacks on U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.
In addition to the allegations it is supporting armed groups, Iran is also suspected of supplying arms to multiple states in the Middle East and other regions. For example, according to data from the SIPRI, between 2012 and 2022, Iran provided Iraq with 9 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, 20 Type-63 107mm towed rocket launchers, and 3 Mohajer-6 armed UAVs to support Shia militias fighting against the Islamic State.
During this same period, Iran also supplied Syria with 1000 Fateh-110 missiles, 5 Yasir UAVs, and 10 Shahed-129 UAVs. In addition, they provided Venezuela with 12 Mohajer UAVs (likely Mohajer-3) and Tajikistan with components for Ababil-2 UAVs which were produced locally under licenses.
Most recently, Russia received 20 Mohajer-6 UAVs and 600 Shahed-136 missiles, intended for use against Ukraine. According to the SIPRI Trend Value Indicator (TIV), the total value of these exports amounted to $242 million.
Humanitarian Consequences of Iranian Arms Exports
Iran’s arms exports to several of these countries are particularly concerning, given that the governments in Syria, Venezuela, and more recently Russia have faced accusations of violating international humanitarian law, both against their own civilians and, in Russia’s case, against civilians in Ukraine. Furthermore, during the period covered by SIPRI’s data on Iranian arms exports, a significant number of civilians have been killed in the conflicts involving these countries and armed groups allegedly supported by the regime. This strongly suggests that if such exports are occurring, Iran may not give due consideration to the potential for human rights abuses when exporting its arms.
For instance, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the civil war in Yemen from 2014 to 2022 resulted in over 150,000 fatalities, with civilians accounting for 15,000 of these casualties. In Iraq, an estimated 89,875 civilian deaths occurred due to armed violence between 2012 and 2022. Similarly, during the Syrian civil war from 2012 to 2022, an estimated 306,887 civilians are believed to have been killed.
Additionally, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, an estimated 27,149 civilian casualties have been reported as of September 10, 2023. While Iran may not bear direct responsibility for these deaths, its arms exports to these states and various armed groups, seemingly without proper consideration for human rights, have played a contributing role in these tragic outcomes.
Iran’s Non-Signatory Status to the Arms Trade Treaty
When contemplating how to address such potential harm, it is of note that Iran is not a signatory of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT’s primary goal is to “prevent and eradicate illicit trade and diversion of conventional arms by establishing international standards governing arms transfers.”
Such a noble ambition does not appear to rest well in Tehran. During the ATT’s inception, Iran was among the small number of states that opposed its creation. As such, in comparison with other major arms exporters, such as the US and the UK, Iran is not bound by the treaty’s obligations, which require prudent consideration of the potential misuse of exported weaponry.
These concerns have led to attempts to mitigate potential harm. Following the UN embargoes expiring and reports of Iran’s exports of drones to Russia, both the European Union (EU) and the US have imposed separate restrictions on Iran’s arms trade to try and reduce their proliferation. However, these restrictions are regional and do not carry the same weight as the ones implemented by the UN Security Council. Indeed, according to Tehran, 22 countries have shown interest in acquiring arms from Iran.
This newfound freedom for Iran to engage in more extensive arms exports, seemingly without sufficient regard for human rights, raises the troubling possibility of more tragic outcomes for civilians in the Middle East and around the world.
The expansion of Iran’s arms industry and its growing export capabilities, especially in the wake of the expiration of UN embargoes, pose significant challenges to global security and human rights. Iran’s proficiency in producing cost-effective ballistic missiles and UAVs, coupled with its history of supplying these arms to various states and armed factions, including those accused of human rights violations, magnifies these concerns. The country’s non-participation in the Arms Trade Treaty further exacerbates the situation, as it operates outside the international regulatory framework designed to prevent the misuse of arms. Consequently, the potential for these exports to contribute to increased violence and civilian casualties in conflict zones remains a pressing issue.
In this context, Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, notes, “the proliferation of arms, especially in regions fraught with conflict, not only fuels ongoing violence but also has a devastating impact on civilian populations. The lack of stringent controls and accountability in arms exports can lead to widespread suffering and undermines efforts towards achieving lasting peace and security.”
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