Iran shows off air defense in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan border region

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While Iran 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 off 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.

While Iran has generally conducted operations against Kurdish dissidents in this area, recently bragging about having defeated the PJAK group over the last decade, the highlighting of air defense is interesting because it sheds light on regional commanders responsible for a unique frontier. According to Tasnim, the commander here is named Brig.-Gen. Abbas Azimi, and he says that he has carried out his mission successfully.

The commander of this Northwest Air Defense Zone discussed the use of special UAV radars in the region. Iran has recently boasts of 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.” What were these threats? He does not specify. Turkey has been conducted a major campaign using drones against Kurdish PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent months. Turkey has urged Iran to help it fight PKK-linked groups, such as PJAK. In 2018 Iran also used drones to monitor ballistic missile strikes on a Kurdish group in Koya. A drone strike also targeted PJAK in Iraq recently.

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This means Iran wants to secure this 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 and specifically claimed Israel used drones.

Iran’s air defense for the northwest says that 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 local systems such as the 3rd Khordad air defense system which downed the US Global Hawk last June. It tried to send this system to Iraq in April 2018 to T-4 airbase 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 are actually long ago in a pro-1979 American missile used by the Shah’s regime. The Khordad system by contrast uses a missile with origins likely in a Russian BUK air defense missile. Overall the systems represent achievements in using phased array radar, using both S and X band for detection and guidance.

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Iran declared operations S-200s in the 1990s and sought S-300s from Russia. Iran also uses the SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile which it acquired in the early 2000s and which it used by mistake to shoot down a Ukrainian airliner in January 2020. Iran has vast missile technology, including with origins in China, Russia, North Korea and other missile technology that it acquired or reverse-engineered over the years, experimenting with longer ranges for solid and liquid fuel.

Iran’s air defender in the article notes that there are some 20 types of systems he has access to detect enemy aircraft or drones. He says that this includes the usual mix of using frequencies, optics and sensors to cover the skies over northwest Iran. 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.” He also says Iran is advancing in electronic warfare and that young experts are innovating to make Iran more secure.

Of particular interest he mentioned the importance of drones and UAVs being constructed in his region. “At present Iran can export UAV products.” Iran has been discussing arms exports recently as an arms embargo will be lifted in October. Iran says it maintains round-the-clock observation and using intelligence to prevent aggression. The air defender Azimi noted that air defense is not a new military endeavor but dates from the First World War.

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It was not clear why Tasnim included this interview at this time. It mentions, oddly, the difficulty of land acquisition for a headquarters for the unit and the need for regulations of helicopters. Those minor details may be for internal government consumption. Iran has sought to export its air defense abilities and it may be designed to showcase competence for export needs. Overall the message may be to Turkey, Iraq, dissident groups and others that northwest Iran is not a porous airspace but that it has advanced air defense. The region is mountainous and difficult to defend.

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