Risky Business: Iran Using Easily Available Commercial Products To Rapidly Advance UAV Program

(New York, N.Y.) — Senior officials with the Biden Administration told reporters earlier this month that Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program has already “changed the balance of power in the Middle East.” Additional measures to expand and reinforce sanctions against Tehran’s UAV program – which has recently been implicated in armed attacks targeting commercial vessels in international waters and civilians and critical infrastructure in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Yemen – are reportedly being constructed. Governmental measures alone are unlikely, however, to stop Iran from procuring readily available components from traditional commercial sources. To do so will require privately held and publicly traded companies in the U.S. and around the world to implement stringent export controls.

Businesses are risking tremendous reputational damage by failing to ensure that the products they manufacture won’t be sold or transferred to a country that kills civilians, targets U.S. and allied military personnel, and disrupts international commerce. Unsuspecting companies have already been caught up in controversy due to Iran’s malign drone usage. Investigators with the United Nations concluded that a key component of Iran’s delta-wing drones, for example, was manufactured in Sweden and “shipped to Tehran via an Indian food-trading company before being assembled into drones used in strikes against Saudi oil facilities in May and September 2019.” Heightened awareness of the identity of the end-users of goods sold export companies may have prevented those attacks. 

Separately, earlier this year, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) contacted Taiwan-based ATEN – which has extensive U.S. business operations – over concerns its products appeared to be being used by Iranian military technology intelligence in service of its sanctioned military UAV program. 

The easiest and best way for companies to protect their reputations and their bottom lines is by adopting Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD) and Know-Your-Customer’s-Customer (KYCC) policies. Existing KYC standards are currently used to protect businesses from engaging directly with sanctioned individuals and entities, but offer inadequate protection from indirect trade with Iranian sanctioned entities.

“The rapid evolution of armed UAV manufacturing means that the components to build a weapon of war are as easily accessible to Iran as they are to legitimate retailers or consumers, and export controls are not keeping up,” said UANI Research Director Daniel Roth. “Products marketed to hobbyists are being used by the Iranian regime to build its arsenal. This is indisputable. Businesses should quickly adopt EDD and KYCC policies to protect themselves from victimization at the hands of the ayatollahs, and governments should prod businesses to do so, too.”

In the past decade, Iran has accelerated its efforts to develop indigenously designed and manufactured weaponized UAV systems and transform its surveillance drones into versatile platforms with integrated or suicide attack capabilities. As its drone forces have grown in sophistication, they increasingly give Iran the ability to carry out strikes with precision. The threat increases as Iran continues to experiment with drone swarms and combined drone and cruise or ballistic missile attacks in an effort to probe and beat air defense systems. 

The U.S. and its regional allies are increasingly concerned with the evolving drone capabilities of Iran and its proxies and are pursuing collaborative efforts to mitigate the threat. The international business community – which has a clear interest in avoiding reputational risks – can be an important partner in disrupting Iran’s drone development by adopting the necessary export controls.

To read UANI’s The Iranian Drone Threat resource, please click here.