Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Could 'Take Advantage' Of Iranian-Made Combat Drones In Ukraine Conflict 


Iranian military officials inspect drones on display prior to a drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran in January 2021.

Iran has supplied unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its proxies in the Middle East and employed them during reconnaissance, sabotage, and attack missions in the region.

Now, Iranian-made drones could end up in the hands of Russia, which is facing Western sanctions and international isolation, for use in its war in Ukraine.

The White House said on July 11 that it had information that Iran was rushing "up to several hundred" drones, including "weapons-capable UAVs," to Moscow's aid, a claim that appears to have been rejected by Tehran. Moscow has refused to comment on the issue.

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said Iran was preparing to train Russian forces to use the drones as soon as this month.

Experts said Iran's strategic partnership with Russia, as well as Tehran's growing drone capabilities, make the Islamic republic a logical supplier for Moscow.

"Russia is probably interested because the Iranians have developed UAVs that extensively use commercial off-the-shelf components, making them cheap, that have been acquired despite extensive sanctions," said Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes.

Iranian-supplied drones could end up in the hands of Russia, which is facing Western sanctions and international isolation, for use in its war in Ukraine.
Iranian-supplied drones could end up in the hands of Russia, which is facing Western sanctions and international isolation, for use in its war in Ukraine.

"So, it has already developed clandestine supply chains that enables it to produce inexpensive long-range guided weapons, something the Russians could potentially take advantage of as they struggle to obtain foreign-made, high-tech components for their more sophisticated weapons."

Binnie added that if Iran was preparing to send hundreds of drones to Russia, as claimed, it would likely be "less sophisticated models, not ones that enable controllers on the ground to engage dynamic targets with guided weapons."

In recent years, Iran has become a prolific drone producer. Its fleet includes "long-endurance surveillance and attack platforms like the Shahed-129," so-called "suicide" drones that are effectively slow cruise missiles, and stealth drones "for penetrating well-defended airspace," said Binnie.

In May, Iran inaugurated a drone factory for its Ababil-2 strike and reconnaissance drone in Tajikistan, Tehran's first production facility abroad.

Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Arlington-based CNA think tank, said Tehran could provide Russia with combat drones and loitering munitions -- also known as "kamikaze" or "suicide" drones -- to hit Ukrainian targets with better precision.

"The real question here is what is it that Russia lacks right now in Ukraine when it comes to UAVs? And my educated guess would be enough loitering munitions and enough combat drones to make a dent and to make a significant breakthrough against Ukrainian forces," Bendett told RFE/RL.

Bendett added that Tehran could supply Moscow with drone parts that could then be assembled in Russia or even fitted with Russian parts.

'Solidify Its Relationship With Russia'

Supplying Russia with drones could have significant ramifications for Tehran, observers said, making Iran an active supporter of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has been prompted criticism inside the Islamic republic.

Iran has officially said that it opposes the war and supports a cease-fire, while at the same time blaming "NATO provocations" for the conflict.

"Iran has clearly chosen its camp and does not seem to care about the reputational or financial costs of its alignment with Russia," said Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group (ICG). "This is the strategic implication of Iran's tactical partnership with Russia in Syria, which proved to be highly valuable to the leadership in Tehran."

A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army shows an Iranian Simorgh drone carrying a weapon during a military exercise in September 2020 in the Persian Gulf, near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, in southern Iran.
A handout picture provided by the Iranian Army shows an Iranian Simorgh drone carrying a weapon during a military exercise in September 2020 in the Persian Gulf, near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, in southern Iran.

Moscow and Tehran were key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during that country's brutal civil war.

Bendett said Iran could use drone sales to solidify its relationship with Russia.

We have various forms of cooperation with Russia, including in the sphere of defense, but we are not helping either side involved in the [Ukrainian] conflict because we are certain that it should be ended."
-- Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian

"Now, Iran has an opportunity to export something of its own to a country that is not only very important to it but a country that may rely on Iranian technology in the long term," he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to say if Moscow had any plans to purchase Iranian drones. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin was not planning to discuss the issue during his July 19 trip to Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian appeared to reject the U.S. claim. During a trip to Italy on July 13, Amir-Abdollahian told the La Repubblica daily that Iran would avoid taking any actions that could lead to an escalation in the war in Ukraine. He did not say if Iran's military cooperation with Russia included the sales of combat drones.

"We have various forms of cooperation with Russia, including in the sphere of defense, but we are not helping either side involved in the [Ukrainian] conflict because we are certain that it should be ended," Amir-Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

Iran's Javan daily, which is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), on July 12 suggested that those with "deep" knowledge of Tehran's drone program were not surprised by Sullivan's claim. The daily claimed that Iranian drones were "superior" to Chinese and in some cases "even to Western ones and those made by [Israel.]"

Javan claimed that Iranian drones could be useful to Russia for high-altitude and tactical reconnaissance missions, destroying targets in enemy territory, directing artillery fire, and electronic warfare.

"Iran also has requirements in some defense fields that can be met in the form of purchasing products or receiving scientific and technical cooperation and experiences from the Russian side," the daily said.

Others in the country suggested that the U.S. claim was an attempt to raise pressure on Tehran and restore an international arms embargo against the Islamic republic that expired in 2020 in line with the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

"It seems that the United States is attempting to distort Iran's neutrality policy for public opinion and put Iran in the hostile camp [along with Russia]," analyst Mohammad Gheysari told the news site Tabnak.

  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

XS
SM
MD
LG