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Mar 23, 2024

‘It can fly for as long as you want’ Russia selling Iran airships similar to the Chinese ‘spy balloon’ shot down over U.S., leaked documents show

On February 4, 2024, the Prana Network, a group of hackers working against the Iranian government, announced it had breached the email servers of an Iranian company called Sahara Thunder, which is widely considered to be a front for the dealings of the Iranian military. The activists managed to obtain 10 gigabytes worth of documents detailing the exchange of military technology between Tehran and Moscow. Meduza has studied the contents of these materials — and uncovered not just new details about Moscow’s procurement of kamikaze drones but also evidence that the Iranian military has been purchasing “spy” airships in Russia (similar to the Chinese “spy balloon” that was shot down in the U.S. in 2023). Here’s what we learned.

The Damavand complex

Among the numerous documents obtained by Prana Network from the Sahara Thunder server were 17 emails from a Russian company called Vneshtekhsnab, which specializes in exporting equipment. The messages discuss the shipment of products to Iran from an entity called the Dolgoprudny Design Bureau of Automation (DKBA), which, according to its website, is the “only state enterprise developing and creating dirigibles, airships, and special-purpose systems.” The Iranian side named its aerostat project Damavand, in honor of the dormant volcano in northern Iran.

Other documents from the trove appear to confirm that Iranian officials have taken interest in Russian dirigibles and airships. Among other things, Meduza discovered from the leaked materials that:

  • The head of Sahara Thunder, Kazem Mirza Kondori, shares a name with a former attaché to the Iranian Embassy in China;

  • Most of the emails between Kondori and the Russian company Vneshtekhsnab are CCed to the address, which, according to previously leaked databases, belongs to an attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Moscow; and

  • Sahara Thunder names a person called “Mr. Famerini” as its “representative” in negotiations with the Russians, while a person with that last name currently serves as an attaché to the Iranian Embassy in Moscow.

The correspondence between Sahara Thunder and Vneshtekhsnab began on November 11, 2020, with a letter from Irina Ponomareva, then the general director Vneshtekhsnab, to Kazem Mirza Kondori. In the email, Ponomareva says that her company has already “begun the process of obtaining permits from state agencies” for the export of dozens of units of “equipment,” including “onboard weather stations,” “controlled barometric valves,” “airship signal lights,” “airship nose mooring masts,” a remote control panel, and “helium cylinders weighing 16,600 kilograms.”

All of these items (including helium) are listed on the DKBA website as components of unmanned dirigibles or airships. With the help of video or radio surveillance systems, the firm’s website says, these machines are capable of tracking the “operational situation” in real time, including in water, around state borders, on roads, in residential areas, and “during sporting and public events.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Russian side to postpone the deal. On November 16, 2020, in response to complaints from Sahara Thunder, Ponomareva wrote that Vneshtekhsnab and DKBA were pushing hard to get permission from the Russian authorities to “export equipment” from Russia, but that the “consideration of these documents by state agencies was complicated by the situation with COVID-19.”

One month later, in December 2020, Vneshtekhsnab finally asked the Iranians to contact the “carrier’s representative,” a man named Grigory Tatar, at According to previously leaked data, a man with this name and email address worked at two customs and export logistics companies until at least 2021.

Given that airship was to be transported by sea, Vneshtekhsnab inquired whether the carrier ship would have an armed escort. The company also asked whether it would be trackable by GPS; ships belonging to the Iranian-Russian “ghost fleet” usually turn off their transponders to make themselves more difficult to track. After discussing the bill of lading and the customs clearance, Irina Ponomareva told Sahara Thunder that the shipment would cost 91,000 euros (about $98,700), not including the helium.

In May 2022, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the companies’ communications resumed. This time, the Iranian side asked DKBA to send “refurbished equipment along with the airship shell.” It was ultimately decided to send the cargo by sea again, with the Iranian side agreeing to “receive” the shipment at the Anzali Port in northern Iran.

Almost one year later, on April 17, 2023, Vneshtekhsnab wrote to the Iranians again. Because of tightened export regulations following the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, it warned, there would be more “delays in delivering parts for the Damavand complex.” Ponomareva explained that after March 9, 2022, when the Russian government had finalized its list of products and equipment temporarily banned for export, communicating with state licensing authorities had become “significantly more complicated.” Under the new rules, she said, Vneshtekhsnab was required to get new documents from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The final message in this chain came from Ponomareva’s successor as head of Vneshtekhsnab, Ilya Botvinovsky. On September 12, 2023, he informed Sahara Thunder that the cargo was ready for “customs clearance” and asked if it would be “possible to send goods to another part of Iran.” He also left a handwritten note in Russian on the official letter to the Iranians: “With respect and best wishes!”

Iran’s specific plan for the Damavand project is unclear from the leaked documents, and according to Ilya Botvinovsky himself, not even Vheshtekhsnab knows the details. “I won’t be going there [to Iran] until next week, for a business trip, and I’ll see then what [the Damavand project] is all about,” he told Meduza.

Among other uses, he noted, “the airship would be practical at a football tournament or something like that: you could launch it and film the area.” He added: “Yes, [launching the airship] to monitor security is one of the possible applications. You can hang anything from a balloon, including equipment that allows you to [surveil an area]. And it can fly for as long as you want.”

The Western press has described the products of the DKBA as a “Russian fleet of spy balloons.” Since the mid-20th century, the agency has been designing devices that resemble the Chinese “spy balloon” that was shot down over the U.S. in 2023, or similar balloons belonging to the U.S. and Israel that sometimes fly over Iranian territory.

In February 2023, objects resembling Russian airships appeared over Ukrainian territory immediately before the Russian military launched a drone attack. The devices were equipped with reflectors that allowed them to avoid detection by Ukrainian radar systems. According to Ukrainian officials, the goal of the operation was likely to trick Ukrainian air defense forces into mistaking the airships for drones and wasting missiles on them.

A tour of Russia’s weapons factories

Spy balloons aren’t the only Russian military technology Iran is interested in. Another document Meduza found among the Prana Network leaks outlines a visit by 17 Iranian specialists to multiple facilities owned by the Russian defense firm Technodinamika to “familiarize themselves” with the company’s “technological potential and production capabilities.” The trip was planned in coordination with the Russian Defense Ministry.

If the visit took place as described in the leaked materials, the Iranian delegation visited eight Russian cities and eight defense enterprises, in addition to attending various official functions and cultural events.

The trip schedule was approved by Russian Defense Ministry official Yevgeny Shmyrin, the head of the agency’s Department of Advanced Interdisciplinary Research and Special Projects. In 2022, Shmyrin was given a state award for “developing a system of aerial multipurpose guided tactical missiles and a modular guided missile-bombing weapon complex.”

It’s unclear from the leaked documents whether Russia and Iran made any official agreements during the visit. However, the Iranian delegation did visit some factories that are involved in drone production and that could be adapted to manufacture Iranian models.

Tehran has also expressed interest in purchasing more traditional Russian weapons. In the fall of 2023, Iranian diplomats entered into talks regarding the purchase of Russian anti-tank and anti-ship missiles.

A secret tunnel

Other documents from the leak describe Moscow and Tehran’s joint efforts to launch the production of Shahed kamikaze drones in Russia. The two countries reached an agreement on plans for the drones to be assembled in the Alabuga Special Economic Zone in Russia’s Tatarstan nearly two years ago. Since then, many Alabuga employees have traveled to Iran for training.

The materials obtained by Prana Network reveal new details about a Russian visit to Iran in November 2022 in which the drone production deal was finalized. Over the course of several days, a delegation from Alabuga visited “avionics, engine, airframe, and assembly production” plants, and learned that “due to the threat of airstrikes,” all of these facilities have “duplicates” scattered throughout the country. The final step of the assembly process, the documents say, takes place “in a secret tunnel under a mountain near the city of Tehran,” according to a Russian-language report on the trip.

Still other leaked documents show that at the start of April 2023, a delegation from Alabuga traveled to Iran for the “training of production personnel” and to attend tests of various drone models. The report uses code words to describe the visit, referring to the drones as “boats” and to Iran as “Ireland”:

The boat was successfully launched during night hours… During the flight, one of the four targets was selected online (shipping containers were used as targets)… The target was hit with an approximate accuracy of 3–5 meters… Considering the high speed, the boat essentially acted as a winged missile. Its main advantage was its ability to quickly strike key targets.

To recreate the drone production process in Russia, manufacturing specialists from Alabuga compiled a step-by-step instruction manual consisting of 214 slides. For security reasons, the document is titled “Motor Boat Production Technology” and even contains illustrations of boats in addition to pictures of drones.

Further leaked documents discuss the “logistics” of delivering materials from “Ireland” to Russia. Among other organizations, they refer to a company called Eurasia Shipping, which is supposedly ready to organize “container shipments by sea from [Iran’s] Amirabad Port [...] to [Russia’s] Makhachkala Port.” A ship owned by this company called the Sulak was redirected to the Caspian Sea in December 2022 and has since been mainly carrying out shipments between Russian and Iranian ports.

As Forbes has previously reported, the Prana Network leaks show that Tehran initially planned on charging Moscow $375,000 per Shahed drone (orders of magnitude more than experts had previously estimated). Later, however, the two sides agreed on lower prices as Russia planned to purchase the supplies wholesale.

The contract, estimated to be worth about $2 billion, was partially paid in gold (which Iran evidently preferred to rubles): other leaked documents include an “acceptance and transfer certificate” for gold bars sent by Alabuga to Sahara Thunder.

Russia paid another portion of the cost of the drone components through a UAE-registered company called Generation Trading FZE. On February 23, 2024, the U.S. imposed sanctions against this firm.

Story by Lilia Yapparova. Translation by Sam Breazeale

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