Myanmar Junta Turns to Iran for Missiles and Drones
By The Irrawaddy 26 May 2023
Iran has found a new market for its arms since the 2021 coup in Myanmar.
A Boeing 747 cargo plane from Iran landed in Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon three times between January and April last year.
Operated by Iranian cargo airline Qeshm Fars Air, the flights departed Mashhad, Iran’s second city, and returned to Iran the following day, flight tracker data shows.
What did Qeshm Fars Air bring to Myanmar?
One of the flights delivered a consignment of 21 boxes thought to contain military drones and engines. The sight of Iranian cargo planes landing in Myanmar’s capital has also sparked speculation they are supplying the junta with more powerful weapons, including guided missiles.
Qeshm Fars Air is already under US sanctions for allegedly transporting weapons to Tehran-backed groups in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. But Myanmar Air Force defectors and other informed sources told The Irrawaddy that Tehran is now also delivering weapons to Myanmar.
An Iranian delegation that arrived in Myanmar on January 13, 2022 contained names of individuals linked to the Revolutionary Guard, according to an official list seen by The Irrawaddy. One of the names is Gholamreza Ghasemi, a former Revolutionary Guards commander and pilot who was detained in Argentina last year when his 747 was grounded on suspicion of arms trafficking. It is not known whether, Ghasemi who is also a board member of Qeshm Fars Air, piloted the flights to Myanmar.
However, it is safe to conclude that Myanmar and Iran have engaged in secretive military-to-military cooperation since the coup. Prior to the military takeover, Naypyitaw and Tehran had a distant relationship.
Several former air force officers who defected to the resistance movement told The Irrawaddy that the junta, officially called the State Administration Council (SAC), has purchased spare parts from Iran to refurbish its drones. According to the BBC Burmese Service and Asia Times, the regime has purchased both MD550 drone engines and guided missiles from Iran. Several former air force officers confirmed this.
The MD550 drone engine is produced by an Iranian company called Mado (Oje Parvaz Mado Nafar), which has been on the US sanctions list since October 2021.
According to former Myanmar Air Force pilots, Mado supplied the MD550 drone engines to replace worn parts in the junta’s existing drone fleet. The maintenance work was conducted at Meiktila Air Force Base in central Myanmar.
Iran has been supplying Russia with thousands of drones, including the low-cost Shahed-136 “suicide drone”, since the invasion of Ukraine last year. The drones have caused heavy damage in Ukraine.
Moscow and Tehran have grown much closer since the invasion.
Russia wants Iranian drones and ballistic missiles while Iran wants Russian investment and trade.
Likewise, ties between Myanmar and Russia have noticeably escalated since the coup, with the junta purchasing jet fighters, helicopters and other military hardware from Moscow. According to a recent report by the United Nations, Myanmar’s junta has imported at least US$ 1 billion in weapons and military-related equipment since the 2021 coup, much of it from Russia and China.
But the junta has diversified its sources of military parts and hardware as Moscow diverts its weapons and ammunition to the invasion of Ukraine.
Iran is an obvious alternative given its long record of supplying arms to repressive regimes and to Tehran-aligned belligerents in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.
The Myanmar military has also enjoyed a deep and secretive relationship with North Korea for years.
In 2016-17, Myanmar’s military sent a team of army engineers to Iran to learn about refurbishing old training aircraft, several former air force officers told The Irrawaddy. Iran is renowned for its ability to repair and finesse military technology it has obtained illegitimately.
The Myanmar regime has been tightening ties with Russia, China, India, Belarus and Iran, among other countries, after being hit with western sanctions over the coup and brutal crackdown on a nationwide uprising.
The junta is using military hardware purchased from these countries to escalate its aerial and ground campaign against resistance forces and ethnic armed groups in Karen, Kachin, Kayah, and Mon states and Sagaing and Bago regions.
In 2005, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expanded President Bush’s “axis of evil” – Iran, Iraq and North Korea – to include Myanmar, Cuba, Belarus and Zimbabwe, which she termed “outposts of tyranny” requiring close US attention.
“To be sure, in our world there remain outposts of tyranny and America stands with oppressed people on every continent… in Cuba, and Burma, and North Korea, and Iran, and Belarus, and Zimbabwe,” Rice said.
Today, Myanmar buys arms from three of these states – Russia, Belarus and Iran – as well as from China.
In October 2022, Myanmar regime boss Min Aung Hlaing welcomed the new Belarusian ambassador to Myanmar, Uladzimir Baravikou, in Naypyitaw. The two sides discussed upgrading diplomatic relations and cooperation in the defence sector, among other topics, junta newspapers reported.
Meanwhile, the junta’s secretive relationship with North Korea also looks likely to be renewed.
This prompts a question: How will the Biden administration and the West punish the former “axis of evil”?