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Iran seeking sensitive tech from private industry for drone program, US agencies warn

The Departments of Commerce, Justice, State and Treasury issued a warning on Iran's efforts to circumvent sanctions to acquire sensitive tech for drone programs.

Four federal agencies issued a joint warning to private industry regarding Iran’s efforts to circumvent sanctions to obtain sensitive technologies for its drone programs.

The Departments of Commerce, Justice, State, and Treasury issued the unclassified joint guidance on Friday to notify companies that Iran is relying on foreign sources for critical components used in its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) that are covered by export controls and other sanctions. Iranian entities use shell companies and other methods to obscure the destination of such transactions and evade sanctions.

"Iran’s development, procurement, and proliferation of UAVs destabilizes the Middle East region and beyond," the agencies wrote. "Over the past ten years, Iran has increased its inventory of both armed and unarmed UAVs, whose low cost, simplicity of production, and ease of use make them appealing to entities and countries of concern to which Iran may transfer them."

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The report noted one of the primary recipients of Iran’s drones is Russia, which has used them in attacks on targets in Ukraine. Iran is also planning to send Russia the materials needed to build a drone manufacturing plant near Moscow.

"Since at least late August 2022, Iran has transferred hundreds of Shahed- and Mohajer-series UAVs to Russia. Moscow has used these UAVs extensively to strike critical infrastructure during its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine," the agencies wrote.

The four agencies added that Iran has provided "illicit shipments of UAVs and other weapons" to the Houthis in Yemen. The group has used Iranian drones for strikes within Yemen and against neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

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Among the key items Iran is seeking to procure to sustain and improve its drone programs are electronics – such as transceiver modules, processors and controllers – in addition to navigation equipment and components for engine systems and flight controls. 

Some of these items are included explicitly on export control lists, meaning they’ve been deemed sensitive technologies not to be exported to countries like Iran due to national security concerns. Others are not, although they may nonetheless be covered by other export control or sanctions regimes imposed on Iran’s government and other Iranian entities.

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As an example of the sorts of foreign-sourced components Iran uses in its drones, the agencies’ guidance featured a picture of a satellite navigation module from a Shahed-136 drone that was recovered in Ukraine after it was provided to Russia by Iran. 

The navigation module contained components such as a capacitor, microcontroller, memory port and transceivers subject to export controls that impose licensing requirements to prevent Iran from using those technologies in its drone program.

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"Exporters, manufacturers, and distributors of items listed above should be aware of the importance of carrying out customer due diligence in a way consistent with the [Bureau of Industry and Security’s] ‘Know Your Customer’ Guidance and Red Flags, and should track to whom they are selling and/or shipping their items," the agencies wrote.

"We urge manufacturers that supply UAV-relevant items to establish multiple methods to track such items due to the observed prevalence of methods used to obscure the sources of components found in Iranian UAVs, such as the lasering off of serial numbers and other identifying information."

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