On Thursday, the US State Department deputy spokesperson announced that it believes Iran has begun training Russian Forces to use its advanced drones. The training coincides with the Kremlin’s procurement of hundreds of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the last few weeks. “During the last several weeks, Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement for UAV transfers from Iran to Russia,” an unnamed US official told CNN. The Biden administration accused Moscow of purchasing this technology to support its war efforts in Ukraine when it first learned of the arms sale. The latest news suggests that this suspicion was accurate and the Kremlin will likely use these drones imminently in its ongoing invasion.
In July, the White House publicized intelligence pertaining to a secret meeting that took place between Moscow and Tehran. According to The Wall Street Journal, the release of the declassified intelligence was being construed as a way to deter the two U.S. adversaries from deploying drones in the Ukraine invasion. In a statement to the press, Sullivan outlined that “Our (the Biden administration’s) information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs, on an expedited timeline.” A week later, Sullivan revealed that recovered satellite imagery depicted a Russian delegation sharing an airfield with a fleet of Iranian drones.
The White House stated that the Kasham images show the Iranian military displaying attack-capable UAVs, including the Shahed-191 and the Shahed-129, to the visiting Russian delegation at the airfield. The Shahed-191 is a stealthy flying wing attack drone produced by the Iranian Shahed Aviation Industry Company. Its design is largely based off a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone which the Iranian military captured in 2011. The drone has a smaller frame with a range of up to 1,500 kilometers. It can also be armed with precision-guided munitions. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has deployed drones in missile attacks in the past, the regime utilizes the Shahed-129 UAV much more frequently. This multirole drone has a range of up to 1,700 kilometers. According to Asia Times, “The drone was used to attack US forces in Syria in 2017 and was sent as aid to Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. It has also conducted reconnaissance flights into Iran’s neighboring Bahrain and Pakistan airspace. The Shahed-129 was also used in flooding relief operations during the 2019 floods in southwest Iran.”
Despite the evidence linking Iranian drones to Russia, both countries have denied the existence of this arms sale. The two countries have a long history of military ties, which has only strengthened in recent years. The Moscow-Tehran budding relationship has coincided with the U.S.-led anti-Iran effort in the Middle East. Last month, president Biden met with U.S. allies in the Gulf and Israel to emphasize the necessary cooperation needed to repel Tehran’s regional malign behavior. The IRGC uses its expanding drone arsenal to attack its adversaries vis-à-vis proxies throughout the Middle East. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq consistently target American personnel and assets in Baghdad with rocket, drone and missile attacks. In Yemen, the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels launch indiscriminate barrages targeting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. believes Moscow is seeking out Tehran’s drone stockpile to support its mission countering American military support for Ukraine.
Drones have been largely considered the crux of the ongoing invasion in Ukraine, shaping the outcome of the war. In an NPR interview, a member of a Ukrainian drone surveillance unit detailed that while artillery is the “fist of the war,” the presence of the drone surveillance unit helps that “fist punch more accurately.” The range of Iran’s drone arsenal is alarming, making Moscow’s potential procurement and deployment of these weapons against Ukrainian forces very concerning.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.