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Iran drones are unlikely to help Russia win the war in Ukraine

Ukraine has blamed Iran for providing Russia with drones, which have been used to attack Kyiv in recent days.

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After months of denials, Iran’s government admitted to shipping lethal drones to Russia — but claimed it happened before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in late February.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian over the weekend publicly confirmed the drone shipments, but US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley refuted his claims about their timing.

Malley wrote on Twitter that, “Iran didn’t give a limited number of drones before the war. They transferred dozens just this summer & have military personnel in occupied Ukraine helping Russia use them against Ukrainian civilians.”

Amirabdollahian said that “if it is proven to us that Russia has used Iranian drones in the Ukraine war, we won’t be indifferent to it.”

Iran’s drones have been used to brutal effect on Ukraine’s civilian centers and critical energy infrastructure, as Russia’s bombardment appears intent on making parts of the country unlivable as winter sets in. They’ve also come in handy for Moscow as Russia’s military runs low on more advanced weaponry like guided missiles.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi greets Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2022. Putin likely wanted to show that Moscow is still important in the Middle East by visiting Iran, said John Drennan of the US Institute of Peace.

Sergei Savostyanov | AFP | Getty Images

But with Iran’s economy in tatters, due in large part to international sanctions, why would it supply Moscow with lethal weaponry in a war that’s already so globally condemned?

Iran ‘doesn’t have a lot of friends’

The answer is manifold, but centers on Iran pursuing strengthened relations with a key strategic ally, Russia; helping Moscow in its effort to combat Western hegemony; and enhancing its own role as a major weapons exporter.

“Iran’s immediate goal is to bolster a key ally’s military effort in Ukraine when it’s clear the Russian war effort is faltering and it’s having trouble resupplying its more advanced cruise missiles and drones,” Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Rane, told CNBC.

“But,” he added, “I think this speaks to a wider Iranian ambition to try to ensure that the war doesn’t go so badly for the Russian government that their ally is destabilized.”

They’re very close, and with Russia’s new isolation, more dependent on each other than ever.

Hussein Ibish

Senior resident scholar, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Iran “doesn’t have a lot of friends let alone great powers that will offer it any kind of security guarantee,” Bohl said. “Russia’s security support to Iran is far from perfect, but it is certainly better than nothing.”

And as Iran expands its weapons production and exports, Russia’s war in Ukraine also serves as a place where Iranian weapons can be used to scale to further test and refine them, he said.

Russia and Iran share a desire to disrupt Western hegemony, and Moscow in particular targets US influence around what it deems its own sphere of influence — the former Soviet states, many of which are now members of NATO.

“Iran regards its alliance with Russia as a key strategic advantage in their international relations,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Both parties are pushing back against Western sanctions and are revisionist, anti-status quo powers seeking to change the orders and power structures in their regions and in the world beyond,” Ibish said. “They’re very close, and with Russia’s new isolation, more dependent on each other than ever.”

A drone launch during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran captured in a handout image obtained on Aug. 25, 2022.

Iranian Army | West Asia News Agency | via Reuters

He added, “Iran also seeks to become a major weapons exporter, adding another source of foreign exchange to their limited coffers.”

Iran is reportedly preparing to sell Russia more attack drones as well as its indigenously made ballistic missiles, and a top Iranian general said during a speech in mid-October that 22 countries are looking to buy its drones.

Iran’s foreign minister has denied the reports about potential missile shipments, calling them “completely wrong.” But it’s often the case in Iran that the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite military entity that answers only to the supreme leader, makes decisions on weapons and overseas conflicts independently of the Foreign Ministry.

How it could backfire

Iran’s weapons support to Russia could trigger yet more Western sanctions — in fact, it already has.

The US and EU have sanctioned several people and entities in Iran over its drone sales to Russia, and Kyiv has downgraded its diplomatic ties with Tehran.

And “it could backfire if its weapons prove faulty or ineffective,” Ibish said, although there isn’t any major evidence of this so far.

A drone launch from an Iranian military ship in the Indian ocean, Iran, captured in a handout image obtained on July 15, 2022.

Iranian Army | Via Reuters

Rane’s Bohl added that Iran’s drone shipments can also create blowback for Russia by incentivizing the West to send more advanced air defense systems to Ukraine.

“Such systems could become a big headache for the Russians and could make Iran’s drones and missiles look ineffective while teaching Western militaries how better to counter them,” he said.

The apparent support for Russia further isolates Iran from the international community, which has condemned its violent crackdown against a female-led protest movement, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody.

A game-changer?

Still, conflict analysts say, the drones themselves are not likely to turn the tide of the war for Russia, which has struggled to make significant territorial gains for months now and has been pushed back in many areas by Ukrainian counteroffensives.

“Overalls, [the drones] are not a game changer because while they can carry out precision strikes against civilian infrastructure and individual units, they can’t reverse the loss of territory that Russia has been enduring since the Kharkiv offensive,” Bohl said. “Russia needs troops on the ground who are trained and capable and it simply doesn’t have that despite mobilization.”

But if Iran sends ballistic missiles to Russia, that changes the calculus, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military personnel stand guard next to two Iranian Kheibar Shekan ballistic missiles in downtown Tehran as demonstrators wave Iranian and Syrian flags during a rally commemorating the International Quds Day, also known as the Jerusalem day, on April 29, 2022.

Morteza Nikoubazl | Nurphoto | Getty Images

“The transfer of ballistic missiles to Russia would be a historic first for the Islamic Republic, who decades ago looked abroad to purchase whole systems and now has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.”

What’s more is the transfer of training and advisors that comes with the weapons, he added — Russians reportedly visited IRGC bases in Iran for drone training, and Iranian advisors are believed to have trained Russian forces on drone use in Crimea.

“Most worrisome,” he added, “it could also mean that the Iranian arms proliferation and military advisor challenge that Arabs and Israelis have been facing for years is becoming a transferable model coming to a theater near you.”

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