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Source: The Guardian

Feb 12, 2023

Exclusive: at least 18 long-range armed drones were delivered to Putin’s navy after Russians visit Tehran in November

Martin Chulov in Beirut, Dan Sabbagh in Kyiv and Nechirvan Mando

Iran has used boats and a state-owned airline to smuggle new types of advanced long-range armed drones to Russia for use in its war on Ukraine, sources inside the Middle Eastern country have revealed.

At least 18 of the drones were delivered to Vladimir Putin’s navy after Russian officers and technicians made a special visit to Tehran in November, where they were shown a full range of Iran’s technologies.

On that occasion, the 10-man Russian delegation selected six Mohajer-6 drones, which have a range of around 200km and carry two missiles under each wing, along with 12 Shahed 191 and 129 drones, which also have an air-to-ground strike capability.

Unlike the better-known Shahed 131 and 136 drones, which have been heavily used by Russia in kamikaze raids against Ukrainian targets, the higher-flying drones are designed to deliver bombs and return to base intact.

The disclosures demonstrate the increasing closeness between Iran and Russia, which share a hostility towards the US, since Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

Last August, US officials said that Iran had begun showcasing the Shahed 191 and 129 drones in June to Russia, and said they expected Tehran to sell them to Moscow. Mohajer-6 drones have been downed in Ukraine since September, with officials displaying one in November to the Guardian in Kyiv.

Increasingly short of missiles to sustain its brutal bombing campaign of Ukraine’s towns and cities, Russia has turned to Iran and also North Korea to replenish its stocks. Many in Ukraine fear Russia plans to launch a major attack around the time of the one-year anniversary of the war in less than two weeks.

Meanwhile, the US, the UK and other western governments have been monitoring the arms cooperation keenly, partly in an effort to prevent it from escalating. Moscow has also sought to buy ballistic missiles, although there is not any public evidence that Tehran has agreed to send them.

Russia may have been keen to obtain the more advanced drones, loosely comparable with the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, because Ukraine has become increasingly effective in stopping the smaller suicide drones, which have to fly in low before striking.

In October, Kyiv was hit by a Shahed 136 drone attack, which killed five when one got through and exploded on a house near the city’s railway station. But in January, Ukraine’s air force said it knocked out 45 of 45 drones after a mass attack timed to coincide with the new year.

Most of the drones sent to Russia were secretly picked up by an Iranian vessel from a base on the coast of the Caspian Sea and then transferred at sea to a Russian navy boat, sources said. Others were sent on a state-owned Iranian airline, they added.

Iran sits on the southern border and Russia on the north-west border of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, making the physical transfer between the allied nations relatively straightforward.

Iran has also sent technicians to Moscow to help get the drones into service. The sources revealed that three Iranian officials a drone – 54 officials in all – helped integrate the smuggled craft into the Russian military.

The drones were produced in the same military factory in the central city of Isfahan that was targeted on 28 January by what was believed to have been an Israeli drone. US officials have indicated they believe Israel was motivated by its own national security concerns, and was not trying to intervene in the Ukraine war.

The latest drone delivery was believed to have been put into service over Ukraine on 20 November. More orders were expected before the suspected Israeli strike, which is understood to have caused significant damage to the manufacturing of Iran’s most advanced weapons systems, including precision-guided missiles and drones.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been at the forefront of the growing bond, with senior leaders, Khalil Mohammadzadeh, Suleiman Hamidi and Ali Shamkhani, playing central roles in the drone exports to Russia.

The Guardian’s sources include those who have direct knowledge of the sale of drones, their capabilities and manufacturing specifics. More than four months into the uprising in Iran, cracks have emerged in the country’s tightly monitored command and control systems, allowing rare glimpses into deals that would otherwise have taken place away from public exposure.

The Mohajer-6 drones received by Russia in November can remain in the air for six hours and operate on electric power. They can carry 40kg bombs and contain high-precision imaging and targeting systems.

The Shahed 129 carries a heavier 60kg payload, but can remain airborne for only four hours, while the Shahed 191 can fly for five hours, carrying 70kg. Both are said to fly using a modified engine, originally made in Germany. The sources said the Iranian craft’s ability to beat jamming systems is much valued by Russia.

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