Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has long been known as a threat across the Middle East. Now, reports from Al Arabiya, The New York Times and elsewhere indicate that Iran may have sent IRGC members to Crimea to aid Russia's drone war against Ukraine.
Last week, Al Arabiya reported: "Russian forces took Iranian instructors to the occupied Kherson and Crimea regions to launch Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, the Ukrainian National Resistance Center reported... The Iranians are based in the Russian-administered Ukrainian areas of Zalizniy Port, Hladivtsi in Kherson, and Dzhankoy in Crimea."
If the reports are credible, these developments would appear to be linked to past work of the IRGC in backing drone and missile threats across the Middle East, as well as working with Russia in the Syrian war.
The IRGC has done the same thing in the past, helping the Houthis in Yemen develop a deadly drone program to threaten Saudi Arabia, the UAE and ships in the Gulf of Oman. The IRGC also helped Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
The Iranian advisers are now in a Russian base in Crimea, the Times reported. This isn't the first time Russians and Iranians have been co-located at a base: they worked together at T-4 base in Syria, from where Iran sent a drone to threaten Israel in 2018. It also tried to move the 3rd Khordad system to T-4.
In April 2018, Russia summoned Israel's envoy over an airstrike on T-4 base, and Moscow has advisers at the base. Now, things are progressing in the Russia-Iran partnership, and the Iranian advisers are in Crimea.
Iran aiding Russia
The Iranians reportedly went to Ukraine to aid Russia's war effort and help with technical issues relating to the drones. They help the Russians learn to fly the drones, the report said.
The Iranians going to Crimea to aid Russia may be repaying a debt to Moscow. In 2015, Soleimani asked Putin for help in Syria, according to reports.
"At a meeting in Moscow in July, a top Iranian general unfurled a map of Syria to explain to his Russian hosts how a series of defeats for Assad could be turned into victory with Russia's help," Reuters reported at the time.
This visit was important because it helped create a Russia-Iran partnership in Syria.
"As Russian warplanes bomb rebels from above, the arrival of Iranian special forces for ground operations underscores several months of planning between Assad's two most important allies, driven by panic at rapid insurgent gains," Reuters reported.
According to this report, the Syrian rebels were advancing toward the coast in Latakia and could threaten the Russian base at Tartous.
"Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table," Reuters reported. "The Russians were very alarmed and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime. The Iranians assured them there was still the possibility to reclaim the initiative," a senior regional official said.
That means Iran's regime, and the supreme leader, put their faith in Moscow.
The Russia-Iran role in Syria helped reverse the war, with the Syrian rebels being mostly defeated after 2016. By 2018, the regime had retaken southern Syria. Russia, Iran and Turkey worked on the Syrian conflict via the Russia-backed Astana Process. Ankara intervened in northern Syria to fight US-backed Kurdish groups, and the Syrian rebels were turned into proxies by Turkey, redirecting them from fighting the regime.
The model that Russia and Iran learned in Syria is that one can destroy the country using air strikes and attrition and drive people from their homes to win a war. They also learned that the West has a short attention span. The US had backed the Syrian rebels from 2011 to 2014, but the rise of ISIS led America to shift priorities. Russia agreed to help the Obama administration on the Iran deal, pivoting the US from backing the Syrian rebels to wanting a deal with Iran.
This was all part of the Russian plan to use the US, and Tehran was happy to collaborate with Moscow.
Iran and Russia seem to have conspired to make it seem like the former was moving rapidly toward nuclear arms so that the latter would swoop in and help make a deal. Then Iran wouldn't make nuclear weapons, but it could still invest in ballistic missiles and drones.
From 2015, Iran began to back the Houthis in Yemen and got them to use drones against Saudi Arabia. The Houthis were a test case for Iran's latest drones, and the new kamikaze-style ones soon were rolling off the assembly line.
By 2018, Iran was ready to use the drones against Israel from Syria. Then in 2019, it used drones against Saudi Arabia and began basing the drones and missiles in Iraq in 2018-2019. Iran then used the drones to attack Kurds and US forces in Iraq, and by 2022, it was threatening US forces in Syria using drones, as well as ships, in the Gulf of Oman.
The Iran drone and missile threat has compelled other countries to counter it. US Central Command and the Pentagon are plowing resources into stopping drones, and the US, Israel and the Gulf states that are part of the Abraham Accords are concerned.
Given this long trajectory from Russia's 2015 intervention in Syria, however, it should be noted how the Iran-Russia model in Syria is now finding its way to the war in Ukraine – via the IRGC and after Iran tested its drones across the Middle East. In short, Iran and Russia used Syria as a model and test bed for drones, missiles and other systems that they are now deploying against Ukraine.
Ukraine is now the latest victim of Iran-Russia collaboration in Syria, which is anchored in the IRGC and Soleimani's legacy. The US killed Soleimani in 2020 in Iraq, but the consequence of his work to bring Russia into the war in Syria, and the scorched-earth policy there, may now be reproducing the same Iran-Russia strategy against Ukraine.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.