The Rise of Iran as a Global Arms Exporter: Implications and Challenges

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The latest reports concerning the sale of Iran’s Mohajer-6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the Sudanese Armed Forces for usage in the Sudanese civil war, which has been spouting for the past year, should not shock those who regularly track Iranian arms sales.

In recent years, and even more so in the last year alone, Iran has been expanding the pace of its sales and transfers of UAVs to diverse parts of the globe, including Ethiopia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Western Sahara’s Polisario Front. Tehran is well on its way to becoming a top arms exporter globally, mainly because additional countries are interested in buying these capabilities. 

In this context, Iran has meaningful advantages compared to countries like the UK, Israel, or the United States, which export similar abilities worldwide. Iran’s drones and other military capabilities, such as Fateh-110 short-range missiles, are more affordable than its Western competitors. On top of that, Iran has no political or legal constraints that prevent it from selling these weapons around the world; it is not fearful that these products will fall into the hands of dangerous foreign parties. 

Most notably, Iran’s products have been proven on the battleground, whether it has been through Russia’s benefit in the war against Ukraine or the terrorist organisations’ usage of them under Iran’s auspices, such as Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, or the Shia groups in Iraq. The strength of these weapons in the hands of the latter type of actors was evidenced in the January 28 attack on a ground in northeastern Jordan, which killed three service members, as well as the start of the “Iron Swords” movement, when the Hamas viciously attacked Israel on October 7, 2023.

This position has allowed Iran to dramatically improve its sales to many countries worldwide, especially to those to which the West has hardship transferring weapons, such as countries involved in conflicts or civil wars.

Another pertinent factor in this equation is the position of Moscow, which was earlier a leading weapons exporter before experiencing difficulty holding its position as a significant power after invading Ukraine. The resultant war has consumed vast Russian resources and prompted an array of sanctions, creating a vacuum in the world of arms sales and military supplies in a time of global instability. 

As a result, Iran has become more prevalent and attractive in the eyes of countries that previously relied on Russia’s supply of military equipment. Furthermore, the current circumstances can create a joint venture between Iran and Russia that may enhance their conventional mutual arms sales due to their high development capabilities. 

Iran’s recent actions in this regard are a clear forewarning of what will happen if it raises its weapons exports. On top of the other issues this trend creates, it must be recognised that giving strategic capabilities to those with complex decision-making mechanisms/processes may lead to mishandling said capabilities, which can significantly destabilise various areas of the world.

The recent occurrences in the Bab al-Mandab Strait are an example of these troubling developments; that the Houthis can endanger the maritime routes in the Red Sea and beyond is forced by the fact that they acquired strategic capabilities, including drones and Coastal Defense Cruise Missiles, from Iran. If Iran boosts the spread of these capabilities, it will probably duplicate the crisis in the Red Sea in other places worldwide. 

There are numerous actions the Joe Biden administration can take to prevent this from happening. First, it can significantly grow pressure on Iran’s drone industry by putting more sanctions on relevant entities, thereby stopping companies from sending dual-use components that could be utilised in the Iranian drone industry. Such an action would make producing these drones much more complicated and expensive.

Inflicting economic and political sanctions on any country that receives military capabilities from Iran or conducts joint military ventures will offer hefty trade-offs that could act as a barrier.

As noted before, the perceived significance of Iran’s drones is bolstered by their use in various fighting arenas around the world. The recent tragic event in Jordan, where Kataib Hezbollah exerted an Iranian Shahed drone, further emphasises the need to increase the focus on Iran’s UAV industry and its distribution around the Middle East, especially its proxies, to control these weapons from becoming appealing to countries and organisations that will use them to harm US interests around the globe. 

The worst thing the Biden administration can accomplish is to ignore the problematic development of Iran’s weapons transfers in favour of concentrating on other negative features of its actions, be it its nuclear program or regional proxies. However, it will be extremely tough to stop Tehran from evolving into a world leader in arms sales, not to mention all the negative implications for international stability accompanying such a reality.

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