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Iran Drone Deal Aims For Afghan Security, Complicates Tajik-Kyrgyz Arms Race     

Top Iranian military commanders inspect domestically manufactured military drones unveiled at an exhibition in Semnan in January 2021.

Drone warfare benefits from stealth, unpredictability, and the ability to send a targeted message without open military involvement. Similar, it appears, to Iran's intentions when it comes to its plans to manufacture drones in Tajikistan.

General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the head of Iran's armed forces, launched the first production line for the Ababil-2 strike and reconnaissance drone in Dushanbe on May 17.

Bagheri heralded the development as a new era of defense cooperation between the two countries as they seek to tackle fresh challenges in the region, which observers say include the Afghan Taliban's return to power in August and the transnational terrorist threat posed by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) militants in Afghanistan.

"Today, we’ve reached a position that apart from fulfilling our domestic needs, we can export military equipment to allies and friendly countries in order to strengthen security and sustainable peace," Bagheri said.

Alluding to the fact that Iran and Tajikistan each share a border with Afghanistan, albeit on opposite ends of the war-torn country, Bagheri added that "the armed forces of the two countries can help Afghanistan establish security and peace through the development of military and regional cooperation."

While Bagheri and Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo used the inauguration ceremony as a platform to call for increased defense cooperation, including joint military exercises, they did not specify the threats they seek to counter nor offer insight into the ultimate plans for the manufacture of the Ababil-2 on Tajik soil.

Video of the ceremony showed what appeared to be an attack version of the Ababil-2 added to the arsenal of the naval branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) last year, according to Jeremy Binnie, Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes.

"We don’t know if this is the type that Tajikistan will actually produce," Binnie told RFE/RL in written comments. However, he added, "the Ababil-2 really isn't the best type for countering militants."

The Ababil-2, a low-ranking member of Iran's increasingly advanced fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), does not appear to be a game changer militarily or a cash cow for Iran's efforts to export arms.

The model has been around for about 15 years and comes in strike, reconnaissance, and a "dummy" version used as a target for air-defense training, Binnie said. And more advanced drones in Iran's fleet of UAVs, including the Mohajer-6 or the new Abadil-5, would be better suited to countering a militant threat due to electro-optical systems that allow for persistent surveillance and their ability to launch guided weapons.

Regional Influence

On the broader issue of regional influence, Binnie said that "there certainly seems to be a sudden push to strength Iranian-Tajikistan relations and the Taliban takeover is clearly a factor in that."

While working to improve their recently strained relations, Tehran and Dushanbe have touted their shared linguistic and cultural ties, although the two Muslim-majority states follow different branches of Islam. The secular Tajik government recognizes the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, while Iran is a Shi’ite-majority theocracy.

Tajikistan is the lone Central Asian state to publicly oppose the Taliban's return to power in Kabul, saying the Sunni militant group is a threat to regional stability and has sidelined Afghanistan’s large ethnic-Tajik population.

The Taliban, meanwhile, has rejected claims by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon that Afghanistan is home to terrorist camps and thousands of militants, and is seen to be wary of reports that Dushanbe has had contact with the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front, which Tajikistan denies.

Hostilities between Dushanbe and Afghanistan's hard-line rulers have grown in recent months as the Taliban has positioned thousands of fighters along the country’s borders with Central Asia, while Tajikistan has conducted military drills along its lengthy border with Afghanistan with forces from the Russian-led Collective Security Organization (CSTO).

Tajikistan has also been involved in border clashes with Kyrgyzstan, which purchased advanced Bayraktar drones from Turkey as well as UAVs from Russia last year. Bishkek has recently touted its drone advantage. In April, following reports that Tajikistan, too, was purchasing Bayraktars from Turkey -- a development that would have violated Bishkek's request that Turkey not sell drones to neighboring countries -- the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security said it had determined that no such deal had been made.

"The Turkish UAVs purchased by the Kyrgyz side are intended exclusively for defensive purposes against the backdrop of the continuing high level of terrorist and religious extremist threat to the states of Central Asia in connection with the situation in Afghanistan," the state committee added. "The Kyrgyz side has never adhered to and will not adhere to an aggressive policy toward neighboring countries."

Balancing Act

Iran, meanwhile, has played a balancing act following persistent allegations that it clandestinely supported the Taliban in recent years as the extremist group waged an insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul. While it has engaged in high-level talks with the Taliban leadership since the group's return to power, Tehran has said it is not ready to officially recognize its rule unless it forms an inclusive government.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has described foreign terrorist groups as the root cause of instability in Afghanistan and has called on the Taliban to do more to counter the threat.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)

Amid this backdrop, Tajikistan and Iran have taken several steps to sort out their own differences. Dushanbe's outrage in 2015 after Iran officially received Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the banned Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party, led to a heated war of words and a significant cut in bilateral trade.

The relationship only began to show signs of improvement when the sides signed security agreements in 2019. Two years later, the two countries announced the creation of a joint military defense committee and expressed interest in expanding cooperation in the political, defense, and military spheres.

Observers told RFE/RL's Tajik Service at the time that Tehran and Dushanbe had either "resolved the problems between them or minimized them," as evidenced by Iran’s approval as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2021 with the help of Tajikistan's lobbying. The two countries also walked away from the SCO summit that fall with pledges to boost trade tenfold.

Iranian drones lined up ahead of a drill at an unknown location in Iran in January 2021.
Iranian drones lined up ahead of a drill at an unknown location in Iran in January 2021.

The inauguration of the drone-manufacturing facility appears to have key benefits for Iran, which has long sought to establish factories abroad to buttress its "resistance economy" designed to counter severe economic sanctions relating to its controversial nuclear program.

The United States issued new sanctions in October intended to punish Tehran for its exports of UAVs, which Washington said the IRGC was supplying to Iran-backed groups in Lebanon and Ethiopia and threatened "international peace and stability."

Iran has also been accused of unofficially helping Huthi rebels manufacture a variant of the Ababil-2 drone for use in Yemen.

But with the decade-long UN arms embargo against Iran having expired in 2020, the production of drones in Tajikistan potentially gives Iran an avenue to both legitimize its drone exports and show it is a player to be reckoned with in the market, observers say.

"The Iranians will be very happy that their military equipment is being exported as it can be viewed as validation of the systems they have developed," Janes analyst Binnie said. "They have spoken fairly vaguely about foreign sales before, but most of their defense exports have actually been gifts to pro-Iranian militant groups in the Middle East."