Independent news outlets in recent days published photos of the remains of what appear to be Iranian-made drones used in strikes against Ukrainian targets, calling into question Iran’s repeated denials that it has supplied such weapons to its ally Russia. Pentagon officials also publicly confirmed the use of Iranian drones in Russian airstrikes, as well as Ukraine’s success in shooting some of the drones down.
In an apparent sign of Iran’s expanded role as a military supplier to Moscow, Tehran dispatched officials to Russia on Sept. 18 to finalize terms for additional weapons shipments, including two types of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, according to officials from a U.S.-allied country that closely monitors Iran’s weapons activity.
An intelligence assessment shared in recent days with Ukrainian and U.S. officials contends that Iran’s armaments industry is preparing a first shipment of Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar missiles, two well-known Iranian short-range ballistic missiles capable of striking targets at distances of 300 and 700 kilometers, respectively, two officials briefed on the matter said. If carried out, it would be the first delivery of such missiles to Russia since the start of the war.
The officials spoke on the condition that their names and nationalities not be revealed because of the extreme sensitivities surrounding intelligence-collection efforts.
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In August, the same officials identified specific Iranian drones, the Shahed series and the Mohajer-6, that Tehran was beginning to supply to Russia for use in Ukraine. The remains of both types have been recovered, analyzed and photographed by Ukrainian forces in recent weeks. Russia appears to have repainted the weapons and given them Russian names.
The officials briefed on the planned missiles shipment said Iran also is preparing new deliveries of unmanned aerial vehicles for Russia, including “dozens” of additional Mohajer-6s and a larger number of Shahed-136s. The latter, sometimes called “kamikaze” drones because they are designed to crash into their targets, are capable of delivering explosive payloads at distances of up to 1,500 miles. Iranian technical advisers have visited Russian-controlled areas in recent weeks to provide instructions on operating the drones, the officials said.
U.S. intelligence agencies declined to comment on the reports of pending Iranian shipments to Russia. Russian and Iranian officials did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday on reports of Russian-bound Iranian missiles.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said “the Islamic Republic of Iran has not and will not provide any weapon to be used in the war in Ukraine,” according to a Saturday readout of his call with his Portuguese counterpart. “We believe that the arming of each side of the crisis will prolong the war.”
On Oct. 3, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kan’ani repeated Iran’s persistent denials of any involvement with supplying drones to Russia. “The Islamic Republic of Iran considers reports about delivering drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war ‘baseless’ and does not confirm them,” he said. Kan’ani reasserted Iran’s claim of neutrality in the conflict and stressed the need for the “two sides to solve their problems through political means free from violence.”
Iran sends first batch of drones to Russia for its war against Ukraine
The Kyiv government has been briefed on the evidence behind the new intelligence, a Ukrainian official told The Washington Post. Ukraine has separately assessed that the majority of drones recently deployed by Russia in the southern Ukraine are Iranian-made.
Ukraine recently downgraded its diplomatic ties with Tehran in response to the appearance of Iranian-made drones over the battlefield. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week cited Russia’s recent airstrikes in urging NATO countries to supply his country with advanced air-defense systems.
“We need to protect our sky from the terror of Russia,” Zelensky said Thursday in a speech to the Council of Europe.
Like Iran, Russia has pushed back against Western reports about the shipment of Iranian weapons for its Ukrainian campaign, with Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov deriding such accounts as “bogus.”
But Iranian drones already have made their mark, destroying several Ukrainian tanks and damaging civilian infrastructure in repeated strikes in the past three weeks, Ukrainian officials say. Missiles experts say the arrival of surface-to-surface missiles could give Russia powerful new weapons at time when Kyiv’s forces are reclaiming captured territory across large swaths of southern and eastern Ukraine, successes that are due in part to Western-supplied artillery.
“The progression from drones to surface-to-surface missiles could give the Russians more options and a lot of punch,” said Farzin Nadimi, an expert on Iranian weapons at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank.
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Iran possesses one of the largest and most diverse arsenals of short- and medium-range missiles in the Middle East. While Iranian weapons designers have struggled with reliability problems, the newest versions of the Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar are considered by experts to be both potent and reasonably accurate at relatively short distances, Nadimi said. Some models come with electrooptic guidance systems that allow missile operators to guide them in their final approach to the target.
Iran previously provided the same missiles to proxy militia groups in the Middle East, most notably Houthi fighters in Yemen. Houthi forces have displayed Iranian-designed missiles in military parades and used them in attacks against oil refineries and other civilian targets in neighboring Gulf countries.
Russia already possesses an array of unarmed aerial vehicles, or UAVs, which are used mainly for surveillance and artillery spotting. But Moscow has not invested in large fleets of armed drones of the type that U.S. forces have routinely used in military campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
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Moscow did command a vast arsenal of precision-guided missiles and rockets at the outset of the Ukraine invasion, but U.S. officials say its stockpile has been dramatically reduced over the course of the war, now in its seventh month.
According to a presentation by a senior U.S. intelligence official on Friday, Russia’s growing reliance on countries like Iran and North Korea is evidence of the impact of sanctions and export controls imposed by Western countries in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.
According to the information presented by Deputy Director of National Intelligence Morgan Muir, Russia has lost more than 6,000 pieces of equipment since the start of the war, and was “expending munitions at an unsustainable rate.”
Blocked by sanctions from obtaining Western electronics, Russia is “turning to countries like Iran and North Korea for supplies and equipment,” including drones, artillery munitions and rockets, Muir said, addressing a group of top international finance officials at the Treasury Department.
Muir also noted that Russia’s defense industry depends heavily on imports for material such as microprocessors and optical and thermal imaging technology.