The Ababil-2 drone which the Islamic Republic of Iran exported to Tajikistan.
“The drones should not be used in conflicts between the two countries…”
In September 2022, fighting erupted along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border for the fifth in less than a year between the two Central Asian states. Several dozen soldiers and civilians were killed on each side. While both states have pulled forces from the un-demarcated border, tensions remain high and neither state is prepared to renounce its claims.
The excerpted article from popular, reform-leaning Iranian news source Entekhab.ir, highlights another angle to the conflict—Iranian drones. Iran has long sought to cultivate allies across Central Asia, a region with which Iran has traditionally had deep ties. In recent months, this has paid dividends with Kyrgyzstan, who voted in favor if Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, the good relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Iran could be under pressure given Bishkek’s accusations, according to the Entekhab.ir article, that Tajikistan has used Iranian Ababil-2 drones along the disputed border. In an October 2022 statement released via Telegram, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security said there were at least 10 instances of Tajik drones violating its airspace along the border since in recent weeks. Tajikistan, meanwhile, has accused Kyrgyzstan of using Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones against Tajik forces and civilian targets.
Iran has become a drone-exporting power in recent years. and is unique compared to other drone exporters—principally Israel, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—in that it allows client countries to manufacture its drones under license. Such outsourcing affords Iran a modicum of plausible deniability in case there is blowback regarding their use by Iranian proxies or others. In this case, however, the use of drones by one Iranian ally against another country to which Iran seeks close ties has escalated into a diplomatic headache. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the Iranian Army Chief of Staff, sought to allay Kyrgyzistani concerns by saying the Ababil-2 was merely a surveillance drone, and it is unclear whether the drone might have broader functions, such as suicide operations. Forfeiting operational control might have once been an attractive tactic for Iran, but client autonomy can have a cost when its target holds Iran, rather than the client, accountable for the use of Iranian drones.
“Sarlashkar Bagheri: Pehpadha-ye Ababil-2-e Iran dar Dargiri Morzi Tajikistan va Qirqizstan Istifadeh Namishavad (Major General Bagheri: Iranian Ababil-2 Drones are not Used in Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan Border Dispute),” Entekhab.ir (popular reform-leaning Iranian website), 8 November 2022. https://www.entekhab.ir/fa/news/702471
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Armed Forces, spoke by phone with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Gen. Baktybek Bekbolotov about important issues in the region…. The Chairman of the General Staff of the Armed Forces said, “Given the border disputes and conflicts between Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in September , the Islamic Republic of Iran has always stated its readiness for any assistance in order to resolve peacefully and prevent any conflict. Referring to the issue of sending Iranian drones to Tajikistan, Maj. Gen. Bagheri noted, “The Ababil-2 drones are only capable of reconnaissance, and such drones are not equipped with weapons and offensive equipment. In the border conflict between the Republic of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the Iranian armed forces have always emphasized to the Tajik armed forces that the drones should not be used in conflicts between the two countries.
 The Telegram statement can be found here: https://t.me/s/pogrankg/416.
 For background on the Iranian drone program and its exports, see: Michael Rubin, “A Short History of the Iranian Drone Program,” American Enterprise Institute, August 2020. https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/A-short-history-of-the-Iranian-drone-program.pdf?x91208
 For background, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran Opens New Drone Plant in Tajikistan,” OEW, July 2022. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/420285
Image: The Ababil-2 drone which the Islamic Republic of Iran exported to Tajikistan.
Attribution: Islamic Republic News Agency