Reports over the weekend shed light on the growing Iran-Russia alliance. The US is now more interested in this partnership because Iran has supplied drones to Russia. However, the recent developments appear to relate to Russia providing Iran with more defense technology.
Why is the US saying this now?
The reports over the weekend said that the Iran-Russia alliance now relates to Russia providing "unprecedented" support for Iran. This could now include Russia offering military and technical support to Iran. That might increase risk to US partners in the Middle East.
The obvious target is Israel. Iran has already been using proxies, such as Hezbollah, to threaten Israel for years. Iran has also increasingly used drones as a threat and exported not only precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also moved militias and weapons into Syria and Iraq. This includes ballistic missiles, air defenses and other systems, such as drones.
The Iranian support for Russia came as a surprise earlier in 2022. Initial reports of Iran sending drones to Russia seemed odd because Russia is the senior partner in the Iran-Russia relationship.
Why would Russia need Iranian drones?
Russia is trying to wage war on Ukraine on the cheap, meaning using soldiers and weapons that can be expendable.
Now Iran wants its part of the bargain.
Russia has supported Iran for decades in various ways. Iran has learned from Russia and also Russian defense technology and Iran has applied that to its ballistic missiles, air defenses and other developments.
When it comes to drones, however, Iran is a pioneer. The drones are not hugely expensive but they can terrorize the region. This means news that Iran may receive more support from Russia is concerning.
Iran has already terrorized the region, despite being under sanctions. Iran, lacking an air force and major conventional armed forces, using things like fast boats in the Persian Gulf, or drones and missiles, to threaten countries in the Gulf, and Israel. It also threatens US bases.
According to recent reports, Russia is giving an unprecedented level of military support, says US national security council spokesman John Kirby. "Russia is seeking to collaborate with Iran in areas like weapons development, training," Kirby said. This could include advanced military equipment.
What might come next?
Russia may help Iran with technology that improves its precision-guided munitions, its cruise missiles, air defenses or even aerospace technology. Russia could also help Iran partner with countries like China and North Korea in triangular deals where Iran receives something from one country and then Russia in turn supplies that country with something as part of a quid pro quo where Iran also sends something to Russia.
These kinds of complex arrangements are how Russia seeks to balance US global hegemony and challenge the US. The fact that China's leader was in the Gulf this week should have ramifications on this issue, because Iran seems concerned that Beijing may prefer the Gulf to Iran. This could also improve the Iran-Russia connection.
It remains to be seen what will come of the US warnings. However, what is important is to reflect on these warnings and recall that Israel has been warning for years about how Iran has been hijacking the region with proxies.
Iran has harmed Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and threatened the Gulf and other countries. Iran threatens shipping and is involved in a plethora of activities that undermine the stability of the region. Israel has been warning for years about the ballistic missile and nuclear threat and also raising concerns about Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups, such as Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
It's clear in the last several years that Iran's threats go far beyond this. Iran has helped outfit militias in Iraq and Syria. Tehran is becoming more brazen with its attacks, such as the attack on Saudi Arabia in 2019 targeting Abqaiq. With Russian technology, Iran's brazen attacks may become even more destabilizing for the region.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.