On the eve of US President Joe Biden's visit, the US revealed that Russia may be acquiring hundreds of Iranian drones.
Jake Sullivan, national security advisor, made this revelation on July 11. "The Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs, on an expedited timeline," Sullivan told reporters.
Washington has information that Tehran may train Russian forces to use the drones. The story seems improbable and unbelievable at first because Moscow is usually thought of as the arms powerhouse that exports them, not a country running around hat in hand to Iran – which is the country that is supposedly under sanctions and yet is now exporting drones. The Islamic Republic has already exported drones to Venezuela, and revealed recently that they were also being made at a factory in Tajikistan.
The drone story has several sides to it. Timing is important. It comes as Biden is coming to the Middle East. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been victims of Iran drone threats. The kingdom has received the brunt of attacks by drone technology exported to Yemen by Iran. Tehran has also used drones directly against Saudi Arabia in the 2019 attack on Abqaiq.
Iranian drones have also been used against ships in the Gulf of Oman and also to harass US warships. In addition, Iran has used drones in Iraq, where it provides them to proxies. Iranian drones have targeted the autonomous Kurdistan region. Tehran has used drones in Syria to target US forces at Tanaf garrison and also against Israel, flown from Iraq, Syria and from Iran itself. The fact that Iran is a regional drone power is very clear.
It's not just timing
Timing is not the only issue. The US has been talking up the Iran drone threat for a while, including congressional support for countering Iranian drones. Israeli technology is a key to countering the drones. US-backed systems such as Iron Dome and David's Sling are also key to the air defenses that protect against Iranian drone and missile attacks.
Moreover, the new laser air defenses that Israel is making – and that it will show to Biden during his visit – are an important part of the multi-layered defense against drones. Israel has many other systems to stop drone attacks, such as Barak missiles and also air-launched missiles from warplanes or helicopters. In fact, Jerusalem neutralized Hezbollah drones recently. The terrorist group acquires drone technology from Iran.
There is also talk of closer cooperation among Israel, the US and the Gulf States regarding air defense. Iran has objected to this concept and has recently made threats. But the overall picture is clear: Iran's drone threat has now caused the US, Israel and states such as Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to better understand the overall threat that the belligerent Islamic country poses.
The reports of Iran selling or providing drones to Russia, however, are a new layer in the drone issue. If Tehran is moving drones to Russia, does that mean it has a surfeit of drones? Does it mean that Iran doesn't need them as much in the Middle East? Is Iran so overflowing with drones that it can give Russia "hundreds" of them – or does Iran need funding and support from Russia for other programs such as the missile and nuclear ones that it is willing to give drones in exchange for support from Moscow?
MANY MORE questions are raised. Is Moscow really running so low on weapons that it needs Iranian drones? Will Iran harm its relations with Kyiv by moving forward with this sale? What is America's reason for revealing this information now? Is the US trying to show how Iran is a key ally of Russia and thus cannot be trusted? Wouldn't the linkage of Tehran and Moscow illustrate the danger of any kind of new Iran deal?
This would appear to cement US ties with Israel and their joint concerns over Iran. If the White House is clearly pointing the finger at the Kremlin for being in the Russian camp regarding harming Ukraine, then that would bolster Israel's case that Iran is a threat to the region.
This is a big change from the rhetoric of the Obama administration that wanted to have talks with Iran. Some members of that administration were critical of the Jewish state, seeing the Islamic Republic as holding promise for "moderation." Now we know that Iran is a huge drone threat and is backing Russia's attacks on Ukraine.
The Iran drone threat has been rising rapidly in recent years. It has used drones for decades, but has increasingly been able to arm them and use them for pinpoint attacks. Iran's drones can carry warheads and operate in a kamikaze fashion. Some can also do surveillance. Some fly on one-way missions, using gyroscopes and waypoints. Others, apparently, can be controlled from a mission control center, meaning they can fly and return to base.
Why does Russia need these drones? Does it want Iranian kamikaze ones? Does it want them for surveillance or to be used as expendable flying machines? Other countries have successfully used drones in complex attacks. Azerbaijan used them against Armenian forces in 2020. It used some as decoys, and others to hunt down radar defenses. It pummeled the Armenian forces using numerous types of drones.
Does Russia want to use drones in Ukraine because it fears losing aircraft? Could this be a way for Moscow to test the drones against US-supplied air defenses or the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) that America provided to Ukraine? Reports say the HIMARS artillery system has been helping Kyiv take out Russian logistics and thus slow the Russian advance in the Donbas. Russia could use expendable drones against it.
Russia already had some types of drones. When I was in the Ukrainian front line in Donbas several years ago, we could hear Russian drones. So the Russian use of them is not new. But it appears to lack large numbers of larger or medium-sized drones. It is not clear if Moscow has armed drones or ones that can carry out kamikaze or "loitering munition" roles. Russia clearly has a plethora of cruise missiles and artillery that it has used against Ukraine.
Perhaps the real reason the Iran-Russia drone connection is coming to light now is also due to Russian President Vladimir Putin's scheduled visit to Iran next week. Tehran may be offering Moscow this system as a fig leaf to show that it is a dependable friend. Iran wants to show it contributes something to the relationship. And Putin will have something to show for taking time to go to Iran in the midst of a war.
Israel gains here because it can highlight the Iranian drone threat. The Gulf countries gain by being able to point to this threat. The US gains by knitting together its friends such as Israel and the UAE and perhaps Saudi Arabia over the drone threat, Iran and also Russia.
This makes sense because the White House wants everyone to be aware that Russia is a bad actor, whereas US partners in the region tend to have amicable relations with Moscow. Now the US can show that Iran, a threat to the region, works too closely with Russia, and this could have ramifications across the Middle East. Is America's quiet message "choose sides" – because Iran's drones are now a threat to more than the Middle East, they threaten the world?
If the Iran-Russia drone connection grows, the ramifications are massive. Not just for the region, the US, Russia and Ukraine, but also because Iran and Russia could leverage each other's technical know-how to build more dangerous ones.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.