14 Aug 2022

Drone race in Central Asia in the wake of the Taliban takeover

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo

On 17 May, Iran unveiled a new drone factory for its Ababil-2 combat and reconnaissance drone in Tajikistan – marking the country’s very first production line abroad and spearheading a new era of defence cooperation between the two states. On the day of the inauguration, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, head of Iran’s Armed Forces said, “we have reached a position that apart from fulfilling our domestic needs, can also export military equipment to allies and friendly countries in order to strengthen security and sustainable peace.”[1] Likely referring to the mutual border both countries share with Afghanistan, he added that “the armed forces of the two countries can help Afghanistan establish security and peace through the development of military and regional cooperation.”[2] While Iran state media have reported the completion of the manufacturing site, no further details were revealed concerning when production is anticipated to begin or the capacity of the production line. Nonetheless, the unprecedented decision to open a drone plant in Tajikistan, and more broadly in the volatile region of Central Asia, was to some extent overshadowed by the ongoing Ukraine war. However, in the context of today’s events, it will carry important regional security implications deserving of greater attention, which will be explored below.

Iran’s strengthened use of drone diplomacy

Relations between Iran and Tajikistan could be considered as wavering, but for the most part have remained somewhat strong. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries deepened their ties, finding common ground in their mutual Persian language and cultural heritage. This was illustrated in Iran being amongst the first countries to extend diplomatic recognition to Tajikistan in 1991, when it became independent. Nonetheless, the two Persian states underwent the lowest point in their relations in 2016, when the Tajik government seized and refused to hand over the assets of Iranian oligarch, Babak Zanjani, after charges of money laundering and embezzlement were made against him. From Iran’s perspective, such a move by a neighbour it considered an ally was largely seen as an act of betrayal and caused the decline of economic ties with Tajikistan.[3] A further event which escalated tensions between the two sides was Tehran’s invitation to the (exiled) Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri to take part in a national conference, during which he also met with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. This prompted Tajikistan to respond with a diplomatic note stating its frustration that the “head of a terrorist party suspected of mounting an attempted overthrow of the government” had attended the state-sponsored convention.[4]

Just two weeks after this incident, however, Iran appeared to have come to the conclusion that it needed the backing of the Tajik government to pursue some of its strategic goals (atomic program and membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is said to have sent the country a letter saying that Tehran was inclined “to strengthen national unity in Tajikistan and is ready to cooperate in fighting extremism in the region.”[5] This revival of ties has been partly attributed to the appointment of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in August 2021, who chose Tajikistan as the place for his first official trip. It seems that, for Dushanbe, protecting economic and security investments was pivotal in repairing its relationship with Iran, which has heavily contributed to Tajik financial and infrastructure projects. The two countries have since then pledged to increase their bilateral trade to $500 million (an increase of over 75 percent compared to 2021).[6]

It appears that time has mended previous strains, where Iran seems to have even taken a page out of Turkey’s playbook in making the first step towards solidifying its use of drone diplomacy abroad. Drone diplomacy consists of integrating a country’s foreign policy with its drone policy, where defence guides its actions abroad to bind stronger strategic ties by means of a security deal. Whereas Ankara has done this for a number of years, it has primarily conducted drone diplomacy solely through the sale of Turkish weapons to other states. In contrast, Iran has taken it a step further by authorizing what is known as a transfer of technology (ToT) in the defence lexicon and has committed itself to building a manufacturing factory abroad. A ToT consists of an agreement wherein one or more foreign supplier firms (in this case Iranian) provide the technology necessary to enable the buyer (Tajikistan) to manufacture defence systems (drones) domestically. This can be a lengthy process as it is typically undertaken by government and military officials whose role is to determine, through reviews and risk evaluations, what specific systems, components, and technical data are releasable and exportable to a distinct country. Generally speaking, it represents an esteemed sign of trust and closeness between two allied nations. Hence, the decision to establish Tehran’s first ever transfer of production in Dushanbe speaks volumes on the deepening of their military ties and the country’s gradual pivot towards the ‘East’. It also constitutes an achievement in some respect for the Islamic Republic in terms of the development of its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry, where its technology has now reached a level where it is deemed exportable. Up until this point, Iran, not having access to foreign resources due to the trade sanctions it has faced, has come to largely rely on its national capabilities to expand its drone production, which has also hindered to whom it can sell these products. In contrast, Turkey, who has a larger market available for the purchase of its UAVs, has faced in the past the barrier of having some of its systems, such as the TB2 drone, depend on Western technologies such as optics (although it is now developing the Akinci UAV entirely domestically).

The rise of Central Asia’s drone race

Drones have proved beyond a doubt that they are an effective tool of influence and deterrence within the Middle East, used to strengthen one’s position and those of regional partners. While the nexus of competition regarding drone development between Iran and Turkey is not new, it has seemingly accelerated in recent months and appears to have spread across Central Asia. Today, three out of five Central Asian countries have purchased Turkish drones – Kazakhstan with the ANKA and Kyrgyzstan as well as Turkmenistan with the infamous TB2 drones.[7] More recently, Uzbekistan also announced that it was beginning the production of military drones, the first country in the region to do so.[8] For Tajikistan, which not only has proximity with all of these states but also shares borders with two of them, the rapid expansion of these armed systems has posed somewhat of an alarm. In addition to this, over the past few years, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have had a fair share of sporadic violent clashes as well as tensions where several dozens of civilians have been killed. These factors are likely to have prompted Tajikistan to welcome Iran’s decision to open a drone factory within the country, as it will allow the Asian country to build up greater military capabilities and defend its interests in the case of any potential attack. The manufacturing facility will produce copies of Iran’s low-cost tactical Ababil-2 drone, designed for surveillance and reconnaissance operations but that can also be used for attack missions as a loitering munition (at times referred to as suicide drones). It is said to have a 200 kilometer range and a flight time of 1.5 hours.[9] On this, journalist Paul Iddon writes: “The know-how and means to build and service them [the drones] on Tajik soil will give Dushanbe a far cheaper alternative to manned aircraft (Tajikistan’s air force is tiny and antiquated and doesn’t have any jets) or the more high-end and pricier drones available on the market.”[10] Most importantly, and perhaps most dangerously, it will also open the door to an unparalleled increase in the number of these armed systems in the Central Asia region.

Arming Tajikistan with Iranian drones and building a domestic line of production is a way for the two allies to kill two birds with one stone, as it is a mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides. On the one hand, for Iran, it is evidently a way to expand its strategic interests and influence in Central Asia in an effort to level up against Turkey in their drone race. It is also an alternative way to fight back against Israel’s attempt to contain Iranian UAV production and facilities. Last March, it was reported by Lebanese media that an Iranian drone base was struck by an airstrike, where a significant number of Iranian systems were destroyed. The unconfirmed report stated that Tehran believed that 6 Israeli drones were behind the attack, although Israel never responded to these allegations.[11] On the other hand, for Tajikistan, this represents an important opportunity to diversify its military partners while also increasing its deterrence against neighbouring rivals, which all for the most part have already purchased armed drones or are operating them. Lastly, for Dushanbe this could also be an attempt at adopting a strategy that would see Turkey and Iran competing even more against one another.

The Afghanistan context

The development of this new military partnership has taken place against the complex security situation in Afghanistan, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Tajikistan and further borders Iran. Among all Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is the only one to have publicly opposed the Taliban’s takeover of the country and return to power, accusing the regime, in part, of threatening the stability of the region.[12] Following the events of August 2021, several military exercises were held in Tajikistan, near the border, as a show of force with troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Organization (CSTO). While hostilities between the two countries are not new, they significantly increased over recent months with the Taliban responding by posting roughly 4,000 fighters alongside its boundaries with Central Asia. The Tajik government has also accused Afghanistan of housing over 40 different terrorist camps and 6,000 militants (some of which are Tajik) in the northeastern part of the country.[13] Evidently, this claim has been rejected continuously by the Taliban but has exacerbated existing tensions, with the regime sending squads of suicide bombers to the Badakhshan and Takhar provinces. In a vulnerable position, it is therefore not surprising that Iran’s announcement was highly welcomed and timely for Tajikistan.

While it remains to be seen specifically how the Taliban will react to the creation of the nearby drone factory, it recently announced future military aspirations and capabilities with a view to building “a grand army.”[14] A recent United Nations report, focused on the current state of Taliban defence forces, stated that the group was looking to build a total force of 110,000 fighters.[15] In addition, since 2020, several media have reported that the Taliban have been using commercial drones in some of their attacks carried out across the country, causing some casualties and damages to vehicles.[16] While the scale of their use in Taliban-operated missions is still limited, the threat remains present and could eventually become bigger for its neighbours. The question that remains is not so much whether Iran or Tajikistan will deploy some of their own UAVs to Afghanistan for military purposes, but more a question of when. It would not be the first time, as Iran used some of its reconnaissance drones in the 1990s over Kabul to collect intelligence.[17] This scenario seems even more likely considering that the inauguration of the drone plant saw the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, and Tajik Defence Minister, Colonel General  Sherali Mirzo, hold separate talks on plans to further cooperate in the fight against terrorism.[18] In recent years, Iran’s drone program has undergone a considerable expansion and the country has used on a more frequent basis its systems in both land and naval operations.

The Ukraine effect

In light of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, it is noteworthy to point out that Russian officials have remained largely silent to the news of advanced Iranian-Tajikistani defence cooperation and Russian media have for the most part avoided a critical rhetoric in passing. To an extent, this could be interpreted as a passive approval of, and even satisfaction with, this partnership. Russia does have a military base in Dushanbe and was reported to have increased its security in December 2021, by deploying additional and newer tanks as well as missile-defence systems following the reinstitution of the Taliban government.[19] However, with Moscow focusing all of its current efforts on the conflict, it is reasonable to assume that Tajikistan might have been looking for ways to ensure its own military preparedness, independently from Russian forces.

Another important development to note in the context of the war is the presence of U.S.-funded aircraft in Tajikistan since August 2021. When Kabul collapsed, as much as 25 percent of the Afghanistan Air Force (AAF) fled the country and landed in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.[20] While pilots and other members made their way to immigration centres, the American planes remained in both Central Asian countries. Last January, the Taliban Defence Minister, Mohammad Yaqoob, issued a warning to both states threatening “not to test our patience and not to force us to take all possible retaliatory steps” to re-acquire the aircraft.[21] In recent weeks, Washington has made it very clear that the Taliban will not regain possession of the planes as they do not belong to them, while also expressing that they may even donate some of them to the Tajik government. How the situation will evolve remains to be seen but it is sure not to please the current Afghan regime and may aggravate the already volatile security situation with Tajikistan.


[1] Michael Scollon, “Iran Drone Deal Aims for Afghan Security, Complicates Tajik-Kyrgyz Arms Race,” RadioFreeEurope-RadioLiberty, May 24, 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-drones-tajikistan-afghanistan-kyrgyzstan/31865830.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Iranian Billionaire Babak Zanjani Sentenced to Death for Embezzlement,” The Guardian, March 6, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/06/iranian-billionaire-babak-zanjanis-entenced-to-death-embezzlement.

[4] “Tajikistan Ends Cold War with Iran as It Seeks New Trade, Security Partners,” Eurasianet, June 3, 2022, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-ends-cold-war-with-iran-as-it-seeks-new-trade-security-partners.

[5] Abdulfattoh Shafiev, “Iran and Tajikistan: A Story of Love and Hate,” Central Asia Program, Policy Brief 34, February 2016, https://centralasiaprogram.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Policy-Brief-34-February-2016.pdf.

[6] Adam Lucente, “Iran Opens Drone Factory in Tajikistan,” Al Monitor, May 17, 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/05/iran-opens-drone-factory-tajikistan.

[7] Yusuf Selman Inanc, “Turkish Drones: Kyrgyzstan Becomes First Central Asian Country to Purchase TB2s,” Middle East Eye, November 5, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/kyrgyzstan-turkey-first-drone-sale-central-asia.

[8] Muzaffar Ismailov, “Uzbekistan Launches Production of Military Drones,” Bne, January 19, 2022, https://www.artificialintelligence.wiki/drones/uzbekistan-launches-production-of-military-drones/.

[9] Gabriel Honrada, “Iran Unveils New Drone Factory in Tajikistan,” AsiaTimes, May 20, 2022, https://asiatimes.com/2022/05/iran-unveils-new-drone-factory-in-tajikistan/.

[10] Paul Iddon, “Iranian, Turkish, and Israeli Drones Will Be Built in Other Countries,” Forbes, May 24, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauliddon/2022/05/24/iranian-turkish-and-israeli-drones-will-be-built-in-other-countries/?sh=6365ca7a1e5c.

[11] Ben Caspit, “Israel-Iran Conflict Escalates to Drone War,” Al-Monitor, March 15, 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/03/israel-iran-conflict-escalates-drone-war.

[12] Bruce Pannier, “Tajikistan the Taliban’s Toughest Critic,” Gandhara, September 13, 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-taliban-relations/31458364.html.

[13] Abubakar Siddique, “Hostilities Grow between Taliban and Tajikistan amid Border Closure, Truck Seizures,” Gandhara, May 19, 2022, https://bit.ly/3OWASHa.

[14] “Taliban to Create Afghanistan ‘Grand Army’ with Old Regime Troops,” Al Jazeera, February 22, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/22/taliban-create-grand-army-afghanistan-old-regime-troops.

[15] Akmal Dawi, “Taliban Seeking 110,000-Strong Army after 6 Months in Power,”  Voanews, February 15, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-seeking-110-000-strong-army-after-6-months-in-power-/6442084.html.

[16] Franz J. Marty, “Fire from the Sky: The Afghan Taliban’s Drones,” The Diplomat, December 22, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/fire-from-the-sky-the-afghan-talibans-drones/.

[17] Eric Lob, “Iran’s Drone Factory in Tajikistan,” The Middle East Institute, June 3, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-drone-factory-tajikistan.

[18] “Iran Opens Factory in Tajikistan to Build Drones,” Iran International, May 17, 2022, https://www.iranintl.com/en/202205175418.

[19] “Russia Sends New Tanks to Base in Tajikistan, Practices Missile Defence,” Reuters, December 6, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-sends-new-tanks-base-tajikistan-practices-missile-defence-2021-12-06/.

[20] Abraham Mashie, “25% of Afghan Air Force Fled, Remainder in Disarray, Sources Say,” Airforcemag, August 19, 2021, https://bit.ly/3ye7yFu.

[21] Ibid.

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