Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is "extremely concerned" about reports that items produced in Canada may have found their way into Iranian drones that have been used in Russia's war on Ukraine. Trudeau says the local company is fully cooperating and that the government is following up to figure out how parts may have ended up with the drones.
Canada has export controls, but items still ended up in the hands of Iran somehow. This follows a report in the Globe and Mail that showed that an antenna manufactured by an Ottawa-based company apparently ended up on the Shahed-136. According to the AFP, "local media reported that European think-tank Statewatch and authorities in Kyiv found antenna components from Ottawa-based Tallysman Wireless -- among 30 parts produced by Western companies -- in Iranian-made Shahed 136 drones that are part of Russia's arsenal."
The Kyiv Independent noted that "earlier, Ukraine-based NGO StateWatch and Ukrainian civil society group Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO) published an investigation finding that Iranian-made Shahed drones, with the exception of the engine, consist entirely of foreign-made parts. The NGO identified over 30 EU and American companies whose parts have been used to manufacture Iranian kamikaze drones."
Iran has been able to keep Western parts in its drones out of the radar
The story about parts manufactured in the West, or even in places like China, ending up in Iranian drones is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how Iran has operated a global network intended to get around sanctions and sponge up technology that can aid its military programs. Many of the items that ended up on Iranian drones are items that have a civilian purpose. For instance, small or medium-sized engines, or gyroscopes, chips or other technology, isn't necessarily military-grade. That means that Iran can more easily acquire all these pieces of technology from various sources and then pack them into drones at home.
Much of this went under the radar for years because Iran's drones were used in the Middle East. Western countries generally don't care as much if parts manufactured in Europe end up on a drone used by the Iranian-backed Houthis. However, when Russia acquired Iranian drones and began using them to target Ukraine a lot more attention was put on where all the parts of the drones come from. It now turns out that even though Iran boasts of indigenous production of drones and weapons, there are many parts Iran acquires from all over the world.
Over the last months, it has become clear, mostly because Ukraine has helped shed light on the parts of the downed drones, that many of the parts are manufactured in the West. This poses a problem for Western countries that are backing Ukraine. They have to help Ukraine shoot down the drones that are full of Western parts which is embarrassing to say the least. Western countries like Canada rightly want to understand how their parts are getting to Iran. This is because countries are also sanctioning Iranian drone manufacturers and those companies in Iran that are shipping drones to Russia. Western countries don't want to sanction their own companies. In addition, the companies generally say that they don't know how the parts got to Iran.
Tallysman, the Canadian company, for instance, has backed Ukraine. According to the Globe and Mail the company's president Gyles Panther told the newspaper that "Tallysman is 100% committed to supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression."
This will pose a challenge for governments like Canada. How do they make sure that things like antennas or engines or computer chips and other elements don't end up on drones sent by Iran to Russia? What kind of front companies is Iran using and how is it able to procure these items? Evidence has shown Iran is very inventive in terms of not only getting around sanctions but also reverse engineering or attempting to reverse engineer products and then moving production either to Iran or places like China. The new Iran-China ties will likely increase this cooperation and will enable Iran to wean itself of the need to seek out parts made in the West.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.