On January 17 of this year, friends and enemies of the Islamic Republic learned how effective Iranian combat drones can be. Iranian-made drones attacked the airport and fuel trucks in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
The drones, which killed three people, were controlled by Houthi rebels loyal to Iran in Yemen, a thousand kilometers away from the civil war. The United States is now accusing Iran of wanting to supply Russia with hundreds of drones for the Ukraine war. The US accusation is partly war propaganda, but it has a kernel of truth: Russia and Iran are expanding their cooperation.
According to Jake Sullivan, security advisor to US President Joe Biden, Iran wants to deliver the drones to Russia as soon as possible. Training for Russian soldiers on Iranian weapons is scheduled to begin this month.
Sullivan was speaking ahead of Biden’s current Middle East trip to discuss Iran’s threat to the region and a meeting between Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan next Tuesday in Tehran.
From the American point of view, the allegedly planned deliveries of drones support the thesis that Russia is gradually running out of weapons after almost five months of war.
Tehran denied it, but left questions unanswered. Iran rejects Sullivan’s words, according to the Tasnim news agency, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran-Russia cooperation on modern technology began even before the Ukraine war, the agency added. The Kremlin has since denied that Putin will order Iranian drones during his visit to Tehran.
Sullivan, however, renewed his allegations on Wednesday. If Russia seeks an alliance with Iran with the goal of “killing Ukrainians,” then it poses a threat to the entire world, he said.
Reports of alleged Iranian arms aid to Moscow had surfaced as early as April. At the time, representatives of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq told the British Guardian that they had brought rocket-propelled grenades and other war equipment from Iraq to Iran, from where the weapons were transported across the Caspian Sea to Russia. Iran itself is said to have returned Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries to Moscow.
If Sullivan’s drone allegation is true, this would be a new dimension. The Iranian deliveries therefore include so-called kamikaze drones that rush to the target and explode. So far, Ukraine has the upper hand in the drone war against Russia because it can rely on modern drones from Turkey.
However, experts doubt that Iran could deliver several hundred drones to Russia within a short period of time. In recent years, Tehran has provided the Houthis and other allies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah with drones. According to the Saudi-led war alliance in Yemen, the Houthis used a total of 851 Iranian-made drones in attacks in the six-year war between 2015 and the end of last year.
However, exporting several hundred drones to Russia on the fly exceeds Iranian capacities. “As far as I know, Iran doesn’t have hundreds of drones lying around,” drone expert Ulrike Franke of the ECFR think tank wrote on Twitter. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of the Bourse Bazar think tank also commented that Iran was unlikely to have several hundred operational drones in its arsenal.
Iran should also be careful not to jeopardize its supplies to the Houthis with new exports to Russia. Supporting the Houthis gives Iran the power to pressure Arab states.
The Iranian-Russian relationship is not just about drones. Even before Sullivan’s allegations, it was clear that the two states were striving for closer cooperation. Both support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, both are subject to Western sanctions, and both are looking for alternative partners.
Putin and Raisi met a few weeks ago in Turkmenistan on the Russian President’s first trip abroad since the beginning of the Ukraine war. Putin said in the conversation that Russia has “truly deep, strategic ties” with Iran.