Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser for the US, alleged on Monday that Iran is getting ready to deliver “a few hundred” unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia for use in that country’s military campaign in Ukraine. Iran categorically denied the assertion, while Russia said nothing about it.
President Vladimir Putin will visit the Iranian capital the following week to meet with President Ebrahim Raisi, according to announcements from Tehran and Moscow.
Here, RT investigates Iranian drones to determine if Russia may make use of them during the particular operation in Ukraine. We will also discuss why the US is concerned about the possibility and how this development may influence the chances of Iran’s sanctions being lifted.
“Based on our intelligence…,”
According to Sullivan, “our evidence suggests that the Iranian government is poised to give Russia up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs, on a short notice.”
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He was speaking to journalists about Ukraine, so even if it wasn’t said officially, it is safe to believe that the US now anticipates seeing Iranian drones in operation in Eastern Europe.
Iran will begin preparing Russian soldiers to deploy the drones as early as this month, said Sullivan, adding that it’s unknown whether Iran has actually sent any of these UAVs to Russia.
“This is just one example of how Russia is looking to countries like Iran for capabilities that… have been used before we got the ceasefire in place in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia,” Sullivan explained.
The briefing was aired in the US early on Tuesday morning, but no remarks have yet been made by Russian authorities on the matter. But there was more from the Kremlin, as Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for the president, revealed that Vladimir Putin will travel to Tehran the following week, on July 19.
Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will meet privately, although the agenda and specifics have not been made public.
As for Tehran, it flatly denied it has any plans to cooperate with Russia by supplying it with UAVs. When asked about the claim by a media representative, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said:
“There will be a meeting of the heads of the guarantor states of the Astana process, which, as you know, is the process to facilitate a resolution to the Syrian crisis. There will, indeed, be a meeting between Putin, Raisi and Erdogan. In addition to the trilateral meeting, bilateral talks will also take place,” Peskov said.
“Cooperation between Iran and Russia in certain advanced technologies dates back to before the Ukraine war, and there have been no major developments in the area in the recent past.”
Iranian UAVs: What is known
Before Russia began its military action in Ukraine, Washington had been leery about Iran’s drone program. The US imposed sanctions on Iranian private enterprises last November for allegedly producing war and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
These businesses, according to the Americans, pretended to be involved in “private research” while secretly supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran’s UAV development and engaging in global business deals on behalf of the Iranian government. In response, the former provided drones to its friends, including organizations that the US considers to be terrorist organizations.
Notably, the US Treasury Department maintained that Iranian UAVs “threaten world peace and stability” even at that time.
Iranian drones are actually very much worth looking into, according to Denis Fedutinov, editor-in-chief of the journal Drone Aviation, who told RT that the nation has been developing them since the 1980s.
According to him, Iran now possesses a number of drone systems, ranging from small drones to models with a medium altitude and lengthy endurance.
Iranian UAVs were sometimes influenced by American designs. For instance, the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle intercepted by Iran in 2012 served as the basis for the Qods Yasir, while the Shahed 171 Simorgh and Saegheh-2 share many characteristics with the RQ-170 Sentinel that invaded Iranian airspace in 2011.
Visually similar to the US MQ-1 Predator, the Shahed 129 attack drones are of particular interest, as they have played an active role in the civil war in Syria since 2014.
“Iran isn’t too keen on sharing information on its drones, revealing only what’s beneficial to it. But doubtless, one of its advantages is its vast experience in UAV development,” Denis Fedutinov noted.
Nevertheless, Iranian technology cannot hold a candle to its Turkish competition.
“Turkish designers partner with the leading suppliers of various drone subsystems in the market, which makes it easier for them to develop more sophisticated equipment.”
Why does Russia need Iranian drones?
Viktor Litovkin, a retired colonel and military commentator for TASS, told RT that “all drones are essentially the same.”
“Their mission, loadout, and flying time are the only things that change. Iran does not own any noteworthy drones, but neither does anyone else. “Almost all drones are the same,” he said.
For a long time, Moscow has also been creating its own UAVs. Russia “has access to practically all sorts of unmanned military aircraft systems, including reconnaissance, attack, tactical, operational, and operational-tactical versions,” according to Russian Vice Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who oversees the defense sector.
While he acknowledges that Russia “should’ve understood the benefits of drones far earlier,” he doesn’t necessarily agree.
Borisov vowed to “scale up manufacturing” in response to RT’s query on the “shortage of drones,” but added that “it takes time.”
This might be construed as a signal that Russia views Iranian drones as a stopgap measure before deploying Russian drones.
If a contract were to be reached, Fedutinov contends that Moscow would be primarily interested in heavier recon and attack UAV systems.
“I don’t see any barriers to putting such technologies into service [in Ukraine] if they had been accessible to the Russian Army. Drones also carry very precise weaponry that reduces the chance of friendly fire or civilian losses, according to Fedutinov.
Litovkin voiced skepticism over the potential utility of Iranian drones in Ukraine.
“No type of weapon could change the course of the war. Well, nuclear weapons could, but escalating the conflict in Ukraine to a nuclear war is out of the question. Drones are not weapons per se, they are combat platforms,” he said.
Will Iran be able to cover Russia’s UAV demand?
“It sounds like Iranian companies have been able to launch mass production of drones. And we can even say that they have begun to sell their UAV systems to certain customers,” Fedutinov said when asked if Iran was capable of exporting drones.
Litovkin agrees. According to him, “Iran has manufactured a significant number of drones that are just being stored at warehouses right now.”
“Iran is not engaged in any wars, so it doesn’t need all those drones, while Russia could use them in its Ukraine campaign. It is no wonder then that we could buy different types of UAVs from Iran,” the military expert believes.
Vladimir Sazhin, from the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and an expert on Iran, disagrees: “Iran has many adversaries in the region, including Israel, the Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt. There have even been proposals to establish a ‘Middle Eastern NATO.’ All these developments keep pressure on Iran, so I don’t think it will jeopardize its defense capabilities by giving its drones to some other country.”
Sazhin also has doubts about Teheran’s ability to mass produce and export UAVs, “Iran supplies drones to its ‘allies’ – mostly, Yemen’s Houthis, and we can hardly count them in the hundreds, dozens would be a more realistic estimate, and we don’t even know the type. Besides military drones, Iran also manufactures simple models, almost like toys. I don’t think Iran is capable of increasing the scale of production in such limited time. The systems that are manufactured in Iran right now can hardly be exported.”
What else stands in the way?
“I don’t think there was any kind of plan to sell drones to Russia before February 24. Maybe there were some discussions after that, but I doubt anything will actually happen,” Sazhin says.
He believes that political considerations are also involved, “Iran is neutral on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Its unwavering position is that a ceasefire should be reached as soon as possible. I don’t think Iran plans to take either side, by supporting Russia and opposing the West.”
He also said that Tehran is heavily invested in the Vienna talks on resuming the Iranian nuclear deal, which was basically abolished by the Donald Trump administration.
“Iran wants to see this deal come through, because it wants the Western sanctions to be lifted. The EU, Japan and other countries support Teheran in its agenda. They can’t wait for the sanctions to be eased, because that will give them instant access to the Iranian economy, which has been in dire straits. Tehran really needs external investments in all industries. And technology. Obviously, Russia can’t help it with either, while the EU and Japan can,” Sazhin explained.
The expert also notes that by supplying Russia with drones Iran would face more pressure from the West, which would jeopardize its future partnerships with countries that could provide investment and technology.
“That is not the kind of risk Iran is ready to take, this configuration doesn’t benefit it,” Sazhin added.
The expert says that a behind-the-scenes deal between Moscow and Teheran is also impossible.
“Today, a deal like that would remain a secret for only a few hours. Even if Iran secretly supplies Russia with its drones, they will be discovered in the combat zone. This would put Iran in an even more difficult situation,” according to Sazhin.