Moscow has received its first batch of Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), according to U.S. sources. This exchange emphasizes the growing bond between Moscow and Tehran in light of the rogue states’ isolated positions from the international community and paralleled anti-West world views. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has largely morphed into a drone-centric war. Barred from Western technology and stifled by worldwide sanctions, the Kremlin has turned to Tehran to supply its forces with armed drones. However, the U.S. military claims that many of the drones delivered by Iran have proven faulty.
Intelligence on Faulty Drones
A U.S. administration official told Reuters that Moscow has faced “numerous failures” with its new fleet of Iranian-made drones. Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said that “Russian transport aircraft loaded the UAV equipment at an airfield in Iran and subsequently flew from Iran to Russia over several days in August,” adding that “our information indicates that UAVs associated with this transfer have already experienced numerous failures.”
In July, the White House announced that it had evidence depicting a Russian delegation visiting Iran’s Kashan airfield twice this summer. The Biden administration released satellite imagery showcasing the meeting on Iran’s main drone airfield. Both Iran’s domestically produced Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones are visible in the photographs. While the publication of these photographs was clearly meant to deter Tehran from following through on its drone delivery, ultimately the deal was carried out.
In August, U.S. officials asserted that Russian Forces had begun to undergo training in Iran. “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 U.S. official told CNN.
Iran’s Shahed-191 is a turbofan/piston-powered drone produced by the Iranian-based Shahed Aviation Industries. Although the drone is touted as “home-made,” its functions are largely based on a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which Iranian forces captured in 2011.
Iran claims that this drone is capable of flying at speeds up to 300 km/h at 25,000 ft with an endurance of 4.5 hours. Tehran’s modified Shahed-129 was debuted nearly a decade ago and can reportedly carry eight bombs or missiles, making it a lethal weapon. In addition to the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129, Iran delivered its Mohajer-6 UAV in its first installment to Russia. This surveillance and the combat-capable drone have the ability to fire four precision-guided munitions.
Although these three UAVs are “considered to be among Iran’s top-of-the-line military drones, designed for attacks as well as surveillance,” according to the Washington Post, their reported technical malfunctions upon delivery to Moscow are unsurprising. Iran has a history of debuting “advanced” airframes and weapons that don’t actually exist.
For example, the regime’s Qaher-313 fifth-generation fighter has been dismissed mainly by aviation experts across the globe as a joke. Iran’s self-proclaimed fifth-generation fighter never materialized, despite years in the making and two debuted prototypes. A similar story unfolded when the regime revealed its “indigenous” Kowsar fighter jet in 2018, which was essentially a weak replica of an extremely outdated U.S.-made jet produced in the 1970s.
Even if the armed drones Russia procures from Iran are indeed “faulty,” the delivery of these weapons highlights the strengthening relationship between the two countries. Since Tehran has not condemned Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine – unlike the majority of the rest of the world – the regime stands as one of the Kremlin’s few allies.
The ongoing war has triggered a wave of economic sanctions, forcing Moscow into a similar position as Iran, which has also experienced years of targeted sanctions and has been largely excluded from Western financial systems. Together with a shared objection to American hegemony, Russia and Iran will likely maintain a cooperative military alliance over the coming years.
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.