Officials said Iran would help Russia build drones for the Ukraine war


After weeks of bombing Ukrainian cities with Iranian-made drones, Moscow has quietly reached a deal with Tehran to begin manufacturing hundreds of armed drones on Russian soil, according to new intelligence seen by US and other Western security agencies.

Russian and Iranian officials finalized the deal during a meeting in Iran in early November, and the two countries are moving quickly to transfer key designs and components that could allow production to begin within months, three officials familiar with the matter said in interviews.

The officials said the deal, if fully realized, would mark a further deepening of the Russian-Iranian alliance that has already provided crucial support for Moscow’s faltering military campaign in Ukraine. By getting its assembly line off the ground, Russia could dramatically increase its stockpile of the relatively inexpensive but highly destructive weapons systems that in recent weeks have changed the character of Ukraine’s nine-month-old conflict.

Intelligence officials said Russia has deployed more than 400 Iranian-made attack drones against Ukraine since August, with many of the aircraft being used in strikes against civilian infrastructure targets such as power plants. After forcing Moscow to relinquish Ukrainian territory its forces captured early in the war, Moscow has turned to a strategy of relentless air strikes on Ukrainian cities, using a combination of cruise missiles and self-detonating drones packed with explosives to cut off electricity and running water. to millions of people.

For Moscow, the agreement could fill a desperate need for precision-guided munitions, which are in short supply after nine months of fighting. Officials say the arrangement also provides significant economic and political benefits for Iran. While Tehran has sought to portray itself as neutral in the Ukraine conflict, the appearance of Iranian-made drones over Ukrainian cities has sparked threats of new economic sanctions from Europe. The officials said Iran’s leaders may believe they can avoid new sanctions if the drones are assembled in Russia.

Details of the Iran-Russia deal were finalized in an early November meeting, which involved a team of Russian defense industry negotiators who traveled to Tehran to work on logistics, according to security officials from two countries who monitored the events. The officials agreed to discuss the matter on the condition that their identities and nationalities not be disclosed, citing the need to protect sensitive and ongoing information-gathering efforts.

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A separate delegation led by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev traveled to Tehran on November 9 to discuss, among other topics, economic sanctions and other “Western interference” in the affairs of their governments, according to Russian and Iranian state-run media. .

One of the officials familiar with the secret agreement described an aggressive effort by both countries to facilitate the production of Iranian-designed drones inside Russia.

“It goes quickly from decision-making to implementation,” the official said. “It moves quickly and has a lot of power.”

Iran supplies Russia with more drones and missiles

Several NATO countries, including the United States, have also seen the intelligence, but government officials have refused to discuss the details. The White House declined to comment on a specific report on Russian-Iranian cooperation.

But National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement to the newspaper: “Iran and Russia can lie to the world, but they cannot hide the facts: Tehran is helping kill Ukrainian civilians by providing weapons and assisting Russia in operations. It’s another sign of how isolated they are all.” From Iran and Russia.

“The United States — with its allies and partners — seeks by all means to expose, deter, and confront Iran’s provision of these munitions and Russia’s use of them against the Ukrainian people. We will continue to provide Ukraine with the critical security assistance it needs to defend itself, including air defense systems.”

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington referred reporters to the Russian Defense Ministry, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, in response to questions about the reported technology sharing arrangement, declined to respond to specific allegations. But a spokesperson admitted that Iran and Russia had “maintained bilateral defense, scientific and research cooperation, predating the onset of the Ukrainian conflict”.

Mehdi Nourian, minister advisor to the mission, said that while Tehran has publicly stated its neutrality in the conflict, Iran has “prioritized increased defense cooperation with other countries” in the two years since the expiration of a UN resolution restricting Iran’s ability to sell arms.

“Following the alleged allegations of Iranian drones being used in the Ukraine conflict, Iran requested a joint expert meeting with the Ukrainian authorities to look into such allegations,” Norian said. “Significant steps have been taken so far in the cooperative dialogue between Iranian and Ukrainian defense experts, and he will continue to clear up any misunderstandings on this matter.”

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sharply criticized Iran’s decision to supply weapons to Russia and called for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. “Her involvement in Russian terrorism must be punished,” he said in a televised address on November 6.

Having previously denied that it had supplied drones or missiles to Russia, an Iranian spokesperson earlier this month acknowledged that Tehran had sold some of its drones to Moscow, but did so before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. This claim was called into question after independent examinations of drones that were found inside Ukraine. Some of the drones contained Iranian parts stamped with a February 2022 manufacture date, casting doubt on whether the aircraft could have been assembled, shipped to Russia, and deployed before the war began.

Iran has a long record of supplying weapons to pro-Tehran militias, as well as of helping key allies start domestic production of Iranian missiles and drones. He said that past beneficiaries have included Shiite governments and militias in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria Michael Knightsa military and security specialist in the Middle East with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In the hands of militias, Iranian drones are emerging as a powerful new wild card in the Middle East

“In this case, Iran is serving as a design office for a great power,” Knights said. “Iran’s economic design and a half century of clandestine procurement of Western technology is combined with the industrial scale of a great power – Russia. This will have benefits for both Russia and Iran.”

Russia already has a range of unarmed aerial vehicles, or unmanned aerial vehicles, which are mainly used for surveillance and artillery spotting. But Moscow has not invested in large fleets of armed drones of the type that US forces routinely use in military campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East. After spending thousands of its precision-guided missiles in strikes against Ukraine, Russia has increasingly turned to its Iranian partner for attack drones that Knights describes as “the wave of the future: cheap, fast and good enough.”

Russian factories have previously made minor modifications to some of the drones purchased from Iran, changing, for example, the nomenclature and color scheme so that they better resemble Russian munitions. But so far there has been no domestic production of Iranian-designed drones on Russian soil, according to security officials briefed on the new technology-sharing arrangements.

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The officials said it was not clear what kind of help Tehran would ask Moscow in return, other than the money and benefits that come from strengthening the alliance with Iran’s powerful northern neighbor. In the past, Russia has supplied Iran with observation satellite To allow her to spy on her neighbors, as well as the main components of Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. Western media reported that Iran might be seeking additional nuclear assistance In exchange for her assistance in the Russian military campaign.

“What is” ask? “We’re not sure,” said one of the officials. “The Russians are clearly offering diplomatic and economic assistance. They are also aware of the international pressure on Iran, and they want to help ease that.”

Weapons experts say the key question is whether Russia can acquire or manufacture the kinds of electronics and optical systems that enable Iranian drones to successfully carry out precision strikes over long distances. Economic sanctions against Iran and Russia have severely restricted the sale of sensitive technology to both countries, including electronic guidance systems.

An independent analysis of Iranian drones recovered from the battlefield in Ukraine has revealed the extent of Iran’s continued dependence on foreign countries for key components. October report Based on examinations of three types of Iranian-made drones — the Mohajer-6, Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 — it determined the presence of engine and electronics parts made by American, German and Chinese companies, according to the Institute for Science and International. Security, a Washington-based nonprofit organization conducted the analysis.

The report said that while it is unclear precisely how Iran obtained the parts, Tehran has a long history of circumventing international sanctions aimed at disrupting weapons systems as well as nuclear power facilities.

The report said the expected expiration next year of a UN ban on Iranian ballistic missile sales could give Tehran an additional boost as an arms dealer, meaning it “will be free to continue selling its weapons to Russia and others.”

Shane Harris and Paul Sohn contributed to this report.

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