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Jul 20, 2023

Drone war: The price Iran pays for helping Russia against Ukraine

By Scott Peterson

The first known impact of an Iranian drone in the Ukraine war came late last August, when Russia used a delta-wing Shahed-136 to destroy an American-supplied M777 howitzer being used by Ukrainian troops.

Since then, Iran’s kamikaze and other drones have played a significant role in Russia’s campaign against Ukraine, first by shocking front-line Ukrainian troops with the precision targeting of their 80-pound explosive payloads, and then by flying them in waves against civilian and infrastructure targets across Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces are now adept at shooting down Iran’s slow-moving and noisy drones – their engines can sound like gas-powered lawn mowers. Nevertheless, the Iran-Russia military alliance is deepening, with an agriculture drone facility in the Tatarstan region, hundreds of miles east of Moscow, now reportedly turning to the joint production of Iranian drones.

The result for Iran is an unexpected and satisfying role reversal with Russia of their traditional patron-client relationship. It’s a demonstration of anti-Western solidarity in Russia’s hour of need – both nations are subject to comprehensive American and European sanctions – that Iran hopes will boost its geopolitical clout and lead to access to Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system and Su-35 fighter aircraft.

Still, the price paid by Iran has been high. Siding so closely with Russia over Ukraine has made even a partial lifting of U.S. sanctions more remote. And as chances – already meager before Russia’s invasion – fade for a diplomatic arrangement slowing Iran’s nuclear progress in exchange for sanctions relief, the prospects for Iran’s struggling economy are grim.

“Iran didn’t have an alternative option, and could not afford not to support Russia, because Iran doesn’t have a lot of friends,” says Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

“Russia is the only country that has used its veto to shield Iran on the [United Nations] Security Council. It is the only country that has provided Iran with defensive technology in the past few years; it came to Iran’s rescue in Syria,” says Mr. Vaez. “Where I think Iran miscalculated is that ... they underestimated how visceral an issue [Ukraine] would be for the Europeans, and how it could backfire on Iran.”

Impact on nuclear diplomacy

The United States, which has so far provided tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to Ukraine, has described the Kremlin’s ties with Iran as an “unprecedented defense partnership” in a war where Russia has struggled both militarily and diplomatically.

Iran may have figured it had little to lose in Europe, where trade had evaporated. Europe lost credibility as well in Iranian eyes when it failed to fulfill promises to help Iran’s economy after President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018. Yet Iran’s support of Russia affects calculations in Washington, too.

“It has made [nuclear diplomacy] more difficult and politically costly,” adds Mr. Vaez, “because any deal in which Iran would financially benefit would be portrayed by the hard-liners in Washington as the Biden administration basically funding both sides in the war in Ukraine.”

The current cooperation with Moscow kicked off last August, when Iran delivered the first drones. Russia reportedly sent back a plane carrying $145 million in cash and three missiles for Iran to reverse-engineer: a Javelin and a Stinger, both American, and a British NLAW, all meant for Ukraine but intercepted by Russia.

The U.S. said in May that Russia had received 400 Iranian drones, though Ukraine puts the figure at 1,700. Iran state media reported in March that a deal had been finalized to purchase Russian Su-35 jet fighters.

“These are two states with many similar threat perceptions, and they find themselves good partners when it comes to helping each other on state security,” says Professor Abdolrasool-Farzam Divsallar, an Iran expert at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan.

EU Delegation in Vienna/Reuters

The relationship is based on decision-makers from both sides who are part of a “military-industrial complex elite,” which in Iran includes Revolutionary Guard commanders, and defense and intelligence officials, who “for a long time see Russia as the only supporter of Iran’s defensive strategy, the only supporter of Iran’s procurement program,” says Professor Divsallar.

“The Russians delivered what they committed,” he says, despite Russia’s past history of delays. “They are consistent in supporting the core issue of the security of Iran.”

Decades of progress

Iran’s drone program began during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, as one tool in an asymmetric strategy to counter regional rivals far better equipped by the U.S. – and to counter the U.S. itself.

Iran’s program advanced as it captured and reverse-engineered top-line American drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone used by the CIA and brought down intact on Iranian soil in 2011 by the Revolutionary Guard.

Iran has shared its drone expertise with allied Shiite militias, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen. Until the Ukraine war, the peak example of Iranian drone capability came in September 2019, when a wave of strikes on oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia included 18 precise drone hits at Abqaiq.

Iran officially denies wartime drone transfers to Russia and professes neutrality. But Russia’s use of Iranian “drone power” in Ukraine has been a source of pride.

“A few years ago they [the West] would say the pictures of Iranian drones and missiles were photoshopped versions,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said last October. “Now, they say, ‘Iranian drones are very dangerous; why are you selling them to a certain country?’”

The hard-line Kayhan newspaper in February boasted about the “challenge” posed to the U.S. by exports of Iranian military equipment, and of drones especially, which it claimed “brought into question the entire post-World War II U.S. military dominance.”

Indeed, for Iran’s decision-makers, growing closer to Russia is a natural result of years of misdealings with the West. The final straw came when Mr. Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which Iran had carefully abided by, until then – and reimposed sanctions.

Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Sumy Region/Reuters

Russia-Iran dealings have also been difficult: Moscow delayed completion for years in the 2000s of the Bushehr nuclear power reactor that it built for Iran, for example. And a long saga – including Moscow’s self-imposed, yearslong ban – accompanied Iran’s purchase of S-300 missile defense systems.

Moscow also supported U.N. sanctions against Iran in the lead-up to the 2015 nuclear deal. But that same year in Syria, as Iranian ground forces and their allied militias fought to preserve the embattled rule of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia deployed military forces that – working alongside Iran – ensured Mr. Assad’s victory.

Iran’s limits

Still, Iran appears to have drawn limits for itself. It reportedly sent Iranian trainers to Russian bases in Crimea and beyond to teach Russian officers the ways of its drones. But Iran has not transferred ballistic missiles, despite Russia’s own dwindling supply, and early reports of discussions on the issue.

And Iran’s semantics about neutrality suggest it is leaving the door open to U.S. incentives, as well as a desire to head off criticism at home for supporting the invasion of another country – just as Iran was devastatingly invaded by Iraq in 1980.

Indeed, shipping weapons to a country at war is a “very risky move,” especially when the receivers are “officially known to be the aggressor party,” the reformist newspaper Etemad warned last October.

“We suffered the same ourselves during the war with Iraq,” it said. “Iran must await consequences. ... With the strategic importance the West attaches to Ukraine, the issue will add yet another serious problem to our existing list of tensions.”

And Russia seems to have reached some limits, too. It infuriated Iran last week by supporting a joint statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, issued after a GCC summit in Moscow, that appeared to question Iranian sovereignty over three Persian Gulf islands that are claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

“Much is made of Iran’s support being the ‘biggest’ support of Russia, but it could have been more,” says Professor Divsallar. “Iran was cautious about recognizing Ukrainian territory as part of Russia; it was cautious to give that green light ... and the Russians were upset about that.”

Iran has a host of territorial issues with neighbors that would make such recognition risky, notes Professor Divsallar.

“From the Russian viewpoint, the support [from Iran] is not full-fledged. From the Iranian viewpoint, it is the maximum they can deliver.”

Indeed, the International Crisis Group’s Mr. Vaez suggests that, if Iran’s support for Russia has complicated a return to a version of the nuclear deal, which would ease sanctions on Iran, Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from that deal has imposed a cost on the Ukraine war effort now so important to the U.S.

“I would argue that, if the JCPOA had been restored, and Iran had more to lose, then it would be much more reluctant to go as far as it has in supporting Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine,” he says.

An Iranian researcher contributed to this report.

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