Iran will help Russia build drones for the war in Ukraine, officials say

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After weeks of devastating Ukrainian cities with Iranian-made drones, Moscow has quietly reached an agreement with Tehran to start manufacturing hundreds of unmanned armed aircraft on Russian soil, according to new intelligence sources from the US and other Western security agencies.

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

The deal, if fully realized, would represent a further deepening of the Russian-Iranian alliance, which has already provided crucial support to Moscow’s stalled military campaign in Ukraine, officials said. By acquiring its own assembly line, Russia could dramatically increase its stockpile of relatively cheap but highly destructive weapons systems that have changed the character of the nine-month Ukraine conflict in recent weeks.

Russia has used more than 400 Iranian-made attack drones against Ukraine since August, intelligence officials say, with many of the planes used in attacks on civilian infrastructure targets such as power plants. After being forced to abandon Ukrainian territory, whose troops were captured early in the war, Moscow has resorted to a strategy of relentless airstrikes on Ukrainian cities, using a combination of cruise missiles and self-detonating drones with explosives, electricity and running water off for millions of people.

For Moscow, the deal could fill a critical need for precision-guided munitions that has been in short supply after nine months of fighting. The deal also offers significant economic and political benefits for Iran, officials say. While Tehran has sought to present itself as neutral on the Ukraine conflict, the surfacing of Iranian-made drones over Ukrainian cities has sparked threats of new economic sanctions from Europe. Iran’s leaders may believe they can stave off new sanctions if the drones are physically assembled in Russia, officials said.

Details of the deal between Iran and Russia were set at the meeting in early November, which involved a team of Russian defense industry negotiators who traveled to Tehran to work out the logistics, according to security officials from two countries who were monitoring the events. Officials agreed to discuss the matter on condition that their identities and nationalities will not be revealed, citing the need to protect sensitive and ongoing intelligence-gathering efforts.

A separate delegation headed by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev traveled to Tehran on November 9 to discuss, among other things, economic sanctions and other “Western interference” in their government’s affairs, according to state-run Russian and Iranian news media.

One of the officials briefed on the secret deal described an aggressive attempt by both countries to facilitate production of Iranian-design drones in Russia.

“It’s going fast from decision-making to implementation,” the official said. “It moves fast and has a lot of steam.”

Iran to supply Russia with more drones – and missiles

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

But National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement to The Post: “Iran and Russia can lie to the world, but they cannot hide the facts: Tehran is helping to kill Ukrainian civilians by providing arms and… Russia to support operations. It is another sign of how isolated both Iran and Russia are.”

“The United States – with allies and partners – is pursuing all means to detect, deter and confront Iran’s supply of these munitions and Russia’s use of them against the Ukrainian people. We will continue to provide Ukraine with the critical security support it needs to defend itself, including air defense systems,” Watson added.

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

The Iranian UN mission in New York, in response to questions about the reported technology-sharing agreement, declined to address the specific allegations. However, a spokesman acknowledged that Iran and Russia “entertained bilateral defense, scientific and research cooperation that took place before the start of the Ukraine conflict.”

While Tehran has publicly declared its neutrality in the conflict, in the two years since the expiration of a UN resolution restricting Iran’s ability to sell arms, Iran has “prioritised strengthening defense cooperation with other countries,” Mahdi Nourian said , the Mission’s ministerial adviser.

“Following the alleged claims of Iranian drones being used in the Ukraine conflict, Iran has requested a joint expert meeting with the Ukrainian authorities to examine such claims,” ​​Nourian said. “So far, significant steps have been taken in the cooperative dialogue between Iranian and Ukrainian defense experts, and it will continue to clear up any misunderstandings on this matter.”

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

After previously denying it had supplied any drones or missiles to Russia, an Iranian spokesman earlier this month admitted that Tehran had sold some of its drones to Moscow, but did so before Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine began. This claim has been challenged after independent investigations into downed drones recovered in Ukraine. Some of the drones contained Iranian parts manufactured in February 2022, raising doubts as to whether the aircraft could be assembled, shipped to Russia and deployed before the start of the war.

Iran has a long history of supplying arms to pro-Tehran militia groups and also helping key allies begin domestic production of Iranian-designed missiles and drones. Past beneficiaries include governments and Shia militias in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, said Michael Knights, a Middle East military and security specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In the hands of militias, Iranian drones are proving to be powerful new wild cards in the Middle East

“In this case, Iran is acting as a design bureau for a great power,” Knights said. “Iran’s frugal design and half a century of covert procurement of Western technology are being married to the industrial scale of a great power – Russia. That will be beneficial for both Russia and Iran.”

Russia already possesses a number of unarmed aerial vehicles, or UAVs, used primarily for surveillance and artillery reconnaissance. But Moscow has not invested in large fleets of armed drones, such as those routinely used by US forces in military campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East. After expending thousands of its precision-guided missiles in attacks on Ukraine, Russia is increasingly turning to its Iranian partner for attack drones, which Knights calls “the wave of the future”: cheap, fast, and good enough.

Russian factories have previously made minor changes to some of the drones purchased from Iran, such as changing the nomenclature and color scheme to make them more closely resemble Russian ammunition. But until now, there has been no domestic production of Iranian UAVs on Russian soil, according to security officials briefed on the new technology-sharing deal.

Officials said it’s unclear what kind of support Tehran expects from Moscow in return, aside from money and the benefits that come from a strengthened alliance with Iran’s powerful northern neighbor. Russia has in the past provided Iran with a surveillance satellite to spy on its neighbors, as well as key components for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Western news outlets have reported that Iran may seek additional nuclear aid in exchange for its support for Russia’s military campaign.

“What’s the ‘ask?’ We’re not sure,” one of the officers said. “Obviously the Russians are offering diplomatic and economic assistance. They are also aware of the international pressure on Iran and want to help alleviate it.”

According to weapons experts, a key question is whether Russia can acquire or manufacture the kind of electronics and optical systems that will enable Iranian drones to successfully conduct long-range precision strikes. Economic sanctions imposed on Iran and Russia have severely limited the sale of sensitive technology to both countries, including electronic guidance systems.

An independent analysis of Iranian drones recovered from the Ukrainian battlefield has revealed the extent of Iran’s continued reliance on key foreign components. An October report based on examinations of three types of Iranian-built drones — Mohajer-6, Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 — identified those made by US, German, according to the Institute for the Existence of Engine Parts and Electronics and Chinese firms Science and International Security, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that conducted the analysis.

While it’s unclear exactly how Iran obtained the parts, Tehran has a long history of evading international sanctions aimed at disrupting work on weapons systems as well as its nuclear power plants, the report said.

The pending expiry next year of a UN embargo on Iranian ballistic missile sales could give Tehran an extra boost as an arms dealer, meaning it will be “free to continue selling its arms to Russia and others,” the statement said Report.

Shane Harris and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.

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