Iran's military is making strides into twenty-first century technology: National Interest

August 9, 2019

Whereas (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council states spend lavishly on high-end, off-the-shelf, U.S.-built platforms, decades of sanctions and post-revolutionary strategic decisions to be militarily self-sufficient has led the Islamic Republic to focus more on its own indigenous industries.

Direct comparisons of defense spending between Arab states and Iran is difficult. While a superficial reading of public statistics shows Saudi and Emirati spending far outstrips Iran’s as a proportion of GDP, it would be a mistake to take public Iranian statistics at face value.

This should not surprise. Historically, many Middle Eastern countries have approached technology with suspicion, but Iran has been the exception. In the early twentieth century, for example, Saudi clerics resisted first the introduction of the telegraph and then radio. Into the 1970s, some Saudi clerics complained that television was a plot dreamed up in the West to separate Muslim children from God (some savvy clerics subsequently embraced the medium to spread their radical Wahabi perspectives). The Iranian Shah Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896) sponsored his own telegraph line in Tehran just over a decade after Samuel Morse laid America’s first long distance line. Both the Iranian government and public readily embraced almost every new generational technology. (The Iranian historian Hussein Ardakani, writing only in Persian, chronicled this embrace in his seminal History of the Institutions of a New Civilization in Iran).

The question for policymakers in Washington and among America’s Persian Gulf Arab allies is how Iranian acquisition of robotics and artificial intelligence technologies might alter the regional military balance. Iran’s military industries may not yet have developed or been able to field the robotic and autonomous systems that now populate American, Chinese, and Russian arsenals, but they may not remain far behind for long.The same dynamic has been true regarding the internet. Many Arab countries initially rejected or sought to suppress internet access as much for cultural reticence as politics, but within the Middle East, Iran and Israel stood in sharp contrast. In 1993, Iran became the second country in the Middle East after Israel to connect to the internet.

As the Iranian leadership embraces new technologies, its whole-of-government approach means that its work occurs not only on military bases, but also in Iran’s universities and civilian companies.

There is a persistent tendency within Washington to underestimate Iran.

Simply put, Iranian engineers and scientists are adept at developing cutting edge military technologies. It has been ten years, for example, since Iran successfully launched its first satellite into orbit. In the decade since, Iran’s space agency has successfully launched more than a half dozen satellites; more satellite launches are slated for this year. Perhaps this is why last year Iranian scientists developed a gyroscope to augment inertial navigation in Iran’s ballistic missiles.

The Iranian government has also encouraged nanotechnology investment. On January 31, 2015, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visited a nanotechnology exhibition and said that Iran ranked seventh internationally in nanotechnology, urged even greater progress. “You should move forward and you should not abandon the thought of making progress—in this area—on a daily basis,” he said.

Iranian students in Bushehr subsequently joined a rigorous nanotech education program, and the Iranian government has sponsored nanotechnology Olympiads in which top students can compete against each other and which the Iranian government can use for recruitment. There have now been eleven nanotechnology festivals in Tehran meant to provide resources for Iranian students and to facilitate partnerships between Iranian firms and foreign partners, and a twelfth slated for October.

Recent incidents not only with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf but also in Syria and Iraq have also highlighted Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) work. Iran put its first drone into operation in 1985, a decade or two before many other regional states did. Today the IRGC maintains perhaps a dozen different UAV models, the newest of which operate in day and night, utilize GPS guidance, and remain airborne for twelve hours at a time.
While diplomats continue to focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the next generation of military technology involves hypersonic weaponry, robotics, and autonomous systems.
Tehran and Beijing have created joint nanotech centers in China and active links between Iranian and Chinese nanotech companies. Russian leaders, especially, seem willing not only to export technology to Iran, but also to allow Iranian scientists to manufacture it themselves. Just this year, Tasnim News announced that Iranian engineers were seeking to manufacture a version of Russia’s Pantsir anti-aircraft missile system inside Iran. Robotics might be the next target of Russo-Iranian cooperation. On June 24, 2019, Iran’s deputy defense minister visited Moscow to attend a “Military-Technical Forum” attended by over twelve hundred Russian and foreign companies, many of which work in robotics.

Iran has also said to have reverse-engineered the U.S. RQ-170 downed over Iran in December 2011. As for cyber espionage, the growing Iranian cyber bureaucracy is well-documented, well-resourced, and growing.

However it acquires technology, Iranian military tacticians increasingly appear to be incorporating artificial intelligence if not fully autonomous systems into their platforms. The IRGC has recently drilled “Fuji assaults” in which artificial intelligence helps coordinate boats, planes, tanks, and drones in a broad attack. The IRGC used similar tactics during the battle against the Islamic State in the eastern Euphrates region. On June 12, 2019, Iranian Air Defense Force commander Alireza Sabahifard announced a new air defense system that can detect stealth UAVs and which may also utilize some basic artificial intelligence in its operation. That Iranian military successfully downed a U.S. drone just in the same month later suggests that Iranian advances should not be easily dismissed.

Iran is also pushing forward with its own drone capabilities and other robotics. In October 2018, Tehran hosted an International Conference on Robotics and Mechatronics in which academics presented their research, much of which focused on optimizing flight paths, and UAV deconfliction and collision avoidance. One paper, for example, unveiled a new methodology to coordinate multiple flying robots in an “obstacle-laden environment.” Another researcher proposed a new algorithm to reduce UAV fuel consumption and distance traveled. A researcher from Lebanon explored various properties and optimizations for underwater drones. Other research utilized particle swarm optimization and statistical software to improve UAV controls. A June 2019 Tasnim article meanwhile discussed how artificial intelligence could create threats to “psychological security” by utilizing drones or autonomous vehicles for suicide operations.


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