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Problem for Ukraine or Not: Is Iran Really Planning To Sell ‘Hundreds’ of Drones To Russia?

Switchblade Drone
Switchblade Drone. Image Credit: Manufacturer Handout.

Before President Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Washington has accused Russia of trying to purchase “hundreds” of drones from Iran, including ones capable of carrying weapons to aid Moscow in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. 

While the president is traveling to the Middle East to discuss better cooperation between Israel and other Arab nations, including the establishment of a joint Arab/Israeli regional air defense network to warn nations of Iranian attacks, there is also the issue of Russia and Ukraine that directly effects the Middle East. 

Jake Sullivan, the administration’s national security advisor, said to reporters on Monday, July 11, that “The Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs, on an expedited timeline.”

He said it wasn’t clear if Tehran had already supplied any drones to the Russian military, but that the U.S. had intelligence that the Iranians were preparing to train Russian troops on the operation of its drones, as soon as this month.  

Sullivan added that this is proof that Moscow, in its bid to invade and annex Ukraine, has used up nearly all of its weapons. The Russians have been using indiscriminate, large-scale bombing of Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure to take away Ukraine’s will to fight. 

“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 said.

“We will continue to do our part to help sustain the effective defense of Ukraine and to help the Ukrainians show that the Russian effort to try to wipe Ukraine off the map cannot succeed,” he added.

The Iranians have denied this, and while the story seems improbable on a couple of fronts, it is far from impossible to completely discount. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Denies Involvement

Hossein-Amir Abdollahian, Tehran’s foreign minister, was quoted by the Italian newspaper La Republica saying that “we are against Russia’s military attack in Ukraine.’’ This quote is intriguing as Iran was one of the nations that refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

In Rome for a meeting with Italian industry and government leaders Abdollahian was asked about the supposed sale between Russia and Iran. “We have various types of collaboration with Russia, including in the defense sector,” Abdollahian replied. “But we won’t help either of the sides involved in this war because we believe that it [the war] needs to be stopped.”

Israeli intelligence officials believe that if Iran was to send Russia hundreds of drones, the sale would have to come from existing military stocks, thereby depleting Iran’s own stores, which would possibly slow down Iranian operations in the Middle East. But to what end?

Why Would Tehran Help Russia? Better Cooperation in Syria?

If the story is indeed true, then why would the Iranians choose to get involved with Russia, when in the Middle East, their fellow ally in Syria is known to have an alliance more of convenience than anything else. 

While the economic sanctions are just beginning to be felt in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s economy is in shambles due to U.S. sanctions. And the Russians have an uneasy truce in Syria. The Israeli Air Force (IAF), has conducted hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria since the civil war there began. 

The Russians have not fired their most advanced air defense missiles (S-400) against Israeli attacks on Syria. In return, the Israelis do not target any of the places that Russian troops are based. Perhaps they’re looking for more economic or military assistance from Moscow in Syria, where Iran has been trying for some time to base troops on Israel’s borders. 

But are the Russians running that low on drones that they’d need Iran’s help? Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Tehran next week. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this meeting. 

Most U.S. allies in the Middle East have a much cozier relationship with Russia than Washington does, including the Israelis and Saudis. This may be the time for President Biden to convince them that Russia can’t be trusted. 

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for and other military news organizations, he has covered the NFL for for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.

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Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.