After months of denying that it had sent drones to Russia, Iran claimed in November that it had shipped drones to its northern neighbour. But Iran falsely insisted that the shipments took place prior to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. Iran’s admission aims to deflect the mounting international pressures on it for supporting Russian military attack against Ukraine following Kyiv’s call for action to end the Iranian shipments.
Iran’s supply of arsenal to Russia is expected to intensify tensions between Tehran and Washington over the former’s unresolved nuclear program, particularly as the nuclear talks in Vienna remain stalled.
By mid-October, Washington said it would penalize Iran for its missile sales to Russia. Its other ally Estonia demanded strong deterrent action against Tehran to halt the arms sales, and the Europeans imposed human rights sanctions on Tehran because of its harsh crackdown on protesters who have taken to the streets for over one month now in the aftermath of the killing of Mahsa Amini.
Echoing Western voices, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Iran was complicit in the Russian war against his country and its actions must not go unpunished. Although Iranian and Ukrainian officials were scheduled to meet in Europe to discuss the matter, Kyiv declined to participate. Tehran proceeded to ask Ukraine to provide evidence that Iranian drones were supplied to Russia. But Ukraine rejected Iran’s version about the timing of its drone shipments, insisting that it had shot down over 250 Iranian drones in recent months.
Kyiv also downgraded ties with Iran by depriving the Iranian Ambassador Manouchehr Moradi of his accreditation and significantly reduced the Iranian embassy’s diplomatic staff over its supply of what it termed were “evil” drones, including Shahehd-136 kamikaze UAVs, four of which were reportedly shot down over the port of Odesa. Ukraine further insists that Iranian drones are poorly made, and that it has already downed 70 percent of them.
In support of Iran’s new position, Moscow’s representative to the UN Dmitry Polynaskiy insisted that the drones deployed in Ukraine are Russian made. And to defuse tensions, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that his country is committed to ensuring that peace prevails in Ukraine. In addition, Iran’s top officials have expressed an interest in Tehran acting as a mediator to end the Russia-Ukraine war.
The United States’ representative for Iran Robert Malley has said that dozens of drones were sent by Iran to Russia, and Iranian military personnel were even seen stationed in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, which according to him is clear evidence of Tehran’s direct engagement in the war. Washington proceeded to sanction an air transportation provider for helping with the shipments of Iranian drones, and said it would target the drones’ producers and procurers.
According to Western officials, Tehran plans to send more weapons to help Russia, including advanced precision-guided missiles. In August, Russia may have also transported cash and a British NLAW anti-tank missile, a US Javelin anti-tank missile and a Stinger anti-aircraft missile to Tehran. Sources told Sky News that the missiles were part of Western arms supplied to Ukraine that had fallen into Russian hands, and they were transported to Iran where they would be reverse engineered.
With international pressure intensifying on Iran amid growing evidence of its military role in Ukraine, it was not surprising that during a meeting with Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in early November, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi reiterated that his country was in principle opposed to the war. However, the aim of Patrushev’s trip to Iran was to discuss Ukraine, and raised speculation in the West that Moscow was seeking further Iranian support as it faced military setbacks such as the loss of Kherson.
The visit may have led to a further drone deal between Moscow and Tehran, worth tens of millions of dollars. To avoid sanctions, Iran says it is entitled to sell arms under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted the UNSC-resolution mandated arms embargo on it in October 2020.
But Iran is required to technically remain in compliance with a UN monitoring system that tracks its conventional weapons inflows and sales. Unless the West and Iran reach an immediate resolution over the fate of the nuclear deal, the war in Ukraine threatens to isolate Iran further on the international scene, with it potentially facing further harsh sanctions, which it will attempt to neutralize by selling more weapons to Moscow.