Over the past five years, Iranian officials and state media have touted the "indigenous" ingenuity in the Islamic republic's mass-produced Mohajer-6 combat drone, which Russia has deployed in its war against Ukraine.
But a new investigation by Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, has found that electronic components underpinning Tehran's production of the Mohajer-6 are far from homegrown.
The Mohajer-6 drones contain components produced by companies from the United States and the European Union, both of which have sanctions restricting the export to Iran of such technology that can be used for both civilian and military purposes – dual-use technology.
The presence of these components in the Mohajer-6 does not mean their producers are in violation of U.S. or EU sanctions, and RFE/RL does not have evidence that this is the case.
The investigation also found Mohajer-6 components produced in China, including a real-time mini-camera made by a Hong Kong firm that said it was "very sorry" that its products were being used in war.
At least one major foreign-produced component of the Mohajer-6 has previously been identified by reporters in a Mohajer-6 recovered from the battlefield by the Ukrainian military: an engine made by the Austrian manufacturer BRP-Rotax GmbH & Co KG, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Bombardier Recreational Products.
But Ukrainian intelligence assesses that the Iranian combat drone contains components from nearly three dozen different technology companies based in North America, the EU, Japan, and Taiwan, the Schemes investigation has found. A majority of these companies are based in the United States.
A Schemes reporter who personally inspected the foreign-made drone parts identified components produced by at least 15 of these manufacturers.
These include parts made by the U.S. technology firm Texas Instruments, which said in a statement that it does not sell into Russia or Iran and complies with applicable laws and regulations.
To identify these components, Schemes reporters examined parts of the Mohajer-6 drone that the Ukrainian military shot down over the Black Sea near the Mykolayiv region coastal town of Ochakiv. They also reviewed Ukrainian intelligence records on the sources of these components.
The drone also contains a microchip bearing the logo of a California technology company and a thermal-imaging camera that Ukrainian intelligence says may have been produced by a firm based in Oregon or China.
Both Western officials and experts on illicit technology transfers say Iran has built a broad, global procurement network using front companies and other proxies in third countries to obtain dual-use technology from the United States and the EU.
"Exporters will look at the request coming from the [United Arab Emirates] or another third country, and they'll think that they're selling to an end user based there, when really the end user is in Iran," Daniel Salisbury, a senior research fellow with the Department of War Studies at King's College London, told RFE/RL.
In September, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions specifically targeting Iranian companies that Washington links to the production and transfer of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia for deployment in its war on Ukraine. Fighting rages with no sign of an end more than eight months after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion on February 24.
"Non-Iranian, non-Russian entities should also exercise great caution to avoid supporting either the development of Iranian UAVs or their transfer, or sale of any military equipment to Russia for use against Ukraine," U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said in a statement announcing the sanctions.
Chinese Cameras, California Chips
Development of the Mohajer-6, the latest model in a series of drones Tehran has used since the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, began in 2017, while mass production began the following year. During a ceremony commemorating the Islamic Revolution, then-Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said that the new tactical drone could perform surveillance, reconnaissance, as well as help destroy targets.
Hatami extolled what he described as the drone’s domestic design, a portrayal echoed in later reports by Iranian media.
"The homegrown drone was made through cooperation among the army, Defense Ministry, and Quds Aviation Industries," the English-language Tehran Times quoted an Iranian military official as saying in July 2019.
The dismantling of the Mohajer-6 drone recovered by the Ukrainian military shows that the UAV is packed with foreign components.
One of these parts is a bright-orange real-time mini-camera produced by the Hong Kong-based company RunCam Technology. Documents seen by Schemes show that Ukrainian intelligence has also identified RunCam as the producer of the camera, which likely assists in remote guidance of the drone.
Founded in 2013, RunCam is involved in the development and production of so-called "first-person-view" real-time cameras. "Our users are our friends," the company's website states. The site says that RunCam has two authorized Iranian dealers. Reached by Schemes for comment about the use of its camera in the Iranian drone deployed by Russia in its war on Ukraine, RunCam said in an e-mailed response: "We are very sorry to know that RunCam's products were used in warfare. RunCam is specialized in producing products for model aircraft hobby. We never contact any customer related to military."
The provenance of the Mohajer-6 drone-s thermal-imaging camera is more difficult to determine. A Ukrainian intelligence assessment reviewed by Schemes indicates it could be the Ventus Hot model produced by Sierra-Olympic Technologies, based in the U.S. state of Oregon, but that it also resembles a cheaper analog available for sale by the Chinese company Qingdao Thundsea Marine Technology.
Qingdao Thundsea Marine Technology said in an e-mailed statement that the company did not "have any business with Iran," because "it will affect our business." The company said it specializes in marine services and is not involved in manufacturing. It also said that it did not have a single successful order for its online advertisement of the thermal-imaging camera resembling the one recovered from the Iranian drone.
Sierra-Olympic Technologies did not respond to a request for comment on the possible use of its thermal-imaging cameras in Iranian combat drones in time for publication.
Microchips recovered from the drone also featured the logos of the California-based company Linear Technology Corporation and its parent company, the Massachusetts-based semiconductor company Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI). ADI did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment on the possible use of its technology in the Iranian combat drone.
Schemes reporters also observed among the components of the Iranian drone a voltage step-down converter produced by Texas Instruments. The company said in an e-mailed statement that it "does not sell into Russia, Belarus, or Iran."
"TI complies with applicable laws and regulations in the countries where we operate, and does not support or condone the use of our products in applications they weren't designed for," Texas Instruments said.
Schemes reporters also saw several components produced by the California-based technology manufacturer Xilinx, whose parent company is the multinational semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), also based in California.
According to Ukrainian intelligence, one of these Xilinx components was integrated into a video data-link module located in the wing of the Mohajer-6 that helped carry out attack missions.
"This module transmits information from the board to the missile head. That is, guidance for the missile. With the help of this module, it was possible to guide the missile to the target," a Ukrainian military intelligence representative told Schemes.
AMD did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Previous media reports about the components of the Mohajer-6 drone, including by CNN, have shown evidence that its engine was produced by the Austrian manufacturer BRP-Rotax GmbH & Co KG, whose parent company is the Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP).
The Canadian company responded to the reports on October 21, saying in a statement that it "has not authorized and has not given any authorization to its distributors to supply military UAV manufacturers in Iran or Russia."
"As soon as we were made aware of this situation, we started an investigation to determine the source of the engines," BRP said. .
But Schemes reporters found that the authorized Rotax distributor listed on the Austrian manufacturer's website advertised itself as a Rotax aircraft engines distributor for Iran as recently as December 2020.
The distributor, the Italian company Luciano Sorlini S.p.a., has posted multiple magazine advertisements on its websites in which it describes itself as a Rotax distributor for numerous countries. Prior to January 2021, Iran was listed among these countries.
The Rotax website also lists a Tehran-based company -- MahtaWing -- as an official service center for its engines. The company, known in Persian as Mahtabal, conducts repairs of Rotax engines, including the Rotax 912 iS, the engine that was found in the Mohajer-6 combat drone recovered in Ukraine.
BRP said in an e-mailed statement on November 4 that while Luciano Sorlini S.p.a. is the appointed distributor of Rotax aircraft engines in Iran, "since 2019, no Rotax engines have been sold in Iran, and we will not sell any engines to Iran moving forward."
The Canadian company said it had "internal controls" that "significantly" restrict the sale of its products for military purposes.
"For example, the sale of any BRP product to operators with any military activity in Iran, Turkey, and Russia is strictly prohibited," BRP said. "We conduct our business in compliance with all EU, Canadian, and U.S. applicable regulations."
BRP described the Iranian company MahtaWing as a "local service center" that "offers maintenance services for previously sold aircraft engines."
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