Iran shows off air defense in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan border region

While Tehran has generally conducted operations against Kurdish dissidents in this area, the highlighting of air defense is interesting for shedding light on regional commanders.

An Iranian Shahed 171 drone dropping a bomb as part of a military exercise in the Gulf, in Iran (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Iranian Shahed 171 drone dropping a bomb as part of a military exercise in the Gulf, in Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran has granted a rare interview with one of its top air-defense officials responsible for areas in five provinces that border the Kurdistan region of Iraq and also Azerbaijan. With a headquarters in Ardabil province, this is considered the “gate” to the Islamic Republic of Iran and is a sensitive area because of minority populations, simmering insurgencies and security concerns.
Iran has conducted operations against Kurdish dissidents in this area, recently bragging about having defeated the militant Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) over the last decade. The highlighting of Iran’s air defense is interesting because it sheds light on regional commanders responsible for a unique frontier. According to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, the commander in this area is named Brig.-Gen. Abbas Azimi, who said he carried out his mission successfully.
The commander of this Northwest Air Defense Zone discussed the use of special UAV radar in the region. Iran has recently boasted about using new drones with precision munitions and extending its radar range. “We have detected threats at distance from the border, but they did not dare enter the border,” the commander was quoted as saying. What were these threats? He did not specify.
Turkey has been conducting a major campaign using drones against Kurdish PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent months. Ankara has urged Tehran to help it fight PKK-linked groups, such as PJAK. In 2018, Iran used drones to monitor ballistic-missile strikes on a Kurdish group in Koya. A drone strike also recently targeted PJAK in Iraq.
This means Iran wants to secure the region. The air defender does not mention what countries might threaten Iran. However, last year, pro-Iranian groups in Iraq linked to the Popular Mobilization Units accused Israel of attacks on their munitions warehouses, specifically claiming it used drones.
Iran’s air-defense commander for the northwest said the country has made major advances and that 90% of systems are made locally. Iran has relied for a long time on its own technological know-how because of sanctions. It has developed its own air-defense systems, such as the 3rd Khordad, which downed the US Global Hawk drone last June. It tried to send this system to T-4 airbase in Iraq in April 2018, but that shipment was reportedly destroyed in an airstrike.
IN AUGUST, Iran unveiled the Bavar 373, which it said was a new locally produced system that was developed over the last decade. The Bavar 373 uses a missile that may have a 200-km. range. The missile’s origins actually go back to a pre-1979 American-made one used by the Shah’s regime. By contrast, the Khordad system uses a missile with origins likely in a Russian BUK air-defense missile. Overall, the systems represent achievements in using phased-array radar, with both S and X bands for detection and guidance.
Iran declared operations of S-200s in the 1990s and sought S-300s from Russia. The Islamic Republic also uses the SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile, which it acquired in the early 2000s and used by mistake to shoot down a Ukrainian airliner this past January.
Tehran has vast missile technology, with origins in China, Russia, North Korea and elsewhere, which it acquired or reverse-engineered over the years, experimenting with longer ranges for solid and liquid fuel.
Azimi notes in the article that there are some 20 types of systems he can access to detect enemy aircraft or drones. This includes the usual mix of using frequencies, optics and sensors to cover the skies over northwest Iran, he said. He also has the Bavar 373 long-range missile defense, which is more complex.
“The commander of the Northwest Air Defense Zone announced the design and construction of advanced command and control systems in air defense,” the report said. He also said Iran is advancing in electronic warfare and that young experts are innovating to make Iran more secure.
Of particular interest is that he mentioned the importance of drones and UAVs being constructed in his region. “At present, Iran can export UAV products,” he said.
Tehran recently has been discussing arms exports, since an arms embargo is set to be lifted in October. Iran says it maintains round-the-clock observation and uses intelligence to prevent aggression. The air defender noted that air defense is not a new military endeavor but dates back to World War I.
It was not clear why Tasnim published this interview at this time. It mentions, oddly, the difficulty of land acquisition for a headquarters for the unit and the need for regulation of helicopters. Those minor details may be for internal government consumption. Iran has sought to export its air-defense abilities, which may be designed to showcase competence for export needs.
Overall, the message may be to Turkey, Iraq, dissident groups and others that northwest Iran – a mountainous region that is difficult to defend – is not a porous airspace, but rather has advanced air defense.