By Swapnil Ghose
Iran is one of Russia’s principal foreign allies in the ongoing Ukrainian war. By supplying weapons to Russia, Iran has to an extent reversed the traditional client-patron relationship between Western and Middle-Eastern states and opened a new frontier in its proxy conflict with the United States. This article examines the background of the Russia-Iran alliance, the different forms of Iranian military aid to Russia, and the larger geopolitical implications of Iran’s stance.
Background: The Russo-Iranian Alliance and the IRGC
Hassan Rouhani, then President of Iran, meeting Vladimir Putin in Tehran in 2015.
Russia has long been one of the few nations that Iran has enjoyed relatively warm relations with; its predecessor the USSR was the first country to grant diplomatic recognition to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in February 1979. In the 21st century, the two countries have formed an alliance based on their shared opposition to American hegemony. This alliance has most visibly come to fruition in Syria, where Iran and Russia have been the most prominent foreign allies of Basher Al-Assad’s regime. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, 63,000 Russian servicemen saw combat in Syria in just the three-year period between 2015-18. Similarly, Iran has admitted to deploying “military advisers” in Syria, and has unofficially created and continues to fund a variety of militias, composed primarily of third-party foreign nationals in support of the Assad government. These militias include the Afghan Fatemiyoun, the Pakistani Zaynibion Brigade and the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade. The Russo-Iranian alliance in Syria was formalised in 2015 by the RSII or “4+1” coalition, where Russia, Syrian, Iran and Iraq constitute the four, and the Lebanese militant organisation Hezbollah the “+1.” Officially created to coordinate the fight against ISIS in the region, this coalition is notable for having co-opted Iraq, an ostensible US ally, into the Russo-Iranian fold.
Emblem of the IRGC, the primary instrument of power of the Iranian regime both at home and abroad.
The Iranian organisation primarily responsible for these overseas influence operations is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. The branch of the armed forces designated by the constitution to protect the country’s status as an Islamic Republic, the IRGC is part paramilitary, part secret police, and part intelligence organisation. Wielding considerable economic clout through its own private industrial empire, the force also commands Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. After having supplied the bulk of the manpower for Iran’s military presence in Syria, the IRGC, according to the West at least, is now providing the “boots on the ground” for Iran’s military aid to Russia.
Death from Above: Iranian Military Aid to Russia in Ukraine
An Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupyansk, Ukraine.
The first hints of Iran supplying arms to Russia for use in Ukraine came in April of this year when The Guardian reported that Iranian smuggling networks were trafficking weapons, such as rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles, from Iraq into Russian hands. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, who since 2016 have been officially incorporated into the Iraqi Armed Forces as part of the struggle against ISIS, had legally obtained these weapons from the Iraqi government, before passing them on to their Iranian handlers. These weapons were then shipped across the Caspian Sea to Russia, according to one of the militia commanders involved in this operation.
More substantial aid has come in the form of Iranian-designed “kamikaze drones”. These drones, such as the Shahed-131 and Shahed-136, are designed to crash into targets carrying explosive payloads that detonate on impact – hence the moniker of kamikaze or suicide drones. In the past years, Iran’s drone program has been described as “one of the most efficient in the world”, with Iranian drones being used in attacks on targets ranging from Saudi oil refineries and oil tankers in the Arabian Sea to Israeli cities near the Gaza Strip and US bases in Iraq.
Despite the extensive sanctions imposed by the USA and its allies on the Iranian economy, the IRGC has cleverly used a network of proxies to source components for its drones from across the world. For example, miniature-plane engines supplied in 2018 by a German model-aircraft company to China were recovered two years later from the wreckage of an Iranian drone in Yemen, according to a report by the UN Sanctions Panel on Yemen. In all, over 70 companies based in 13 different nations have manufactured components that have been recovered from Iranian drones in Ukraine. Of the more than 500 foreign-sourced components of Iranian UAVs, around 82% have been manufactured in the USA, with some of these components being on the list of hardware prohibited for export to Iran. Reverse-engineering of Western drones has been another key driver of the success of Iran’s drone program; after capturing an American Sentinel stealth drone in 2011, Iran developed a reverse-engineered version in three years. A downed Israeli surveillance drone obtained through Hezbollah was reverse-engineered in an even quicker time.
Schematic of the Shahed-136 suicide drone.
Ukraine said that it first noticed the advent of Iranian drones in the Russian arsenal in September. Since then, Iranian suicide drones have rained down on Ukrainian cities, with a large majority of them targeting energy infrastructure, as part of the Russian plan to deny Ukrainian civilians access to heat and power during the winter, literally “freezing” Ukraine into submission. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but the scale of the attacks is certainly immense: according to the chief of Ukrainian intelligence, Russia launched 330 Shahed drones on a single day in October. He further stated that Russia has ordered another 1,700 drones of different types, which were yet to arrive on the battlefield.
Iranian-Russian military technology transfers are only set to intensify: The Washington Post has reported that Iran and Russia have now signed an agreement to manufacture Iranian-designed drones on Russian soil. Western officials have also alleged that the next shipment of Iranian arms will include surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. The US government has even stated that IRGC personnel are present on the ground in Crimea, the part of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, to train Russian troops in the use of drones. This would mark the first time in half a century that a Middle Eastern state has deployed troops to participate as belligerents in a European conflict. It is also a landmark reversal of traditional perceptions of patron-client relationships between superpowers and regional powers; Russia, a one-time and aspiring superpower, is now dependent on a developing country for military aid.
The aftermath of a drone strike in Kyiv
To date, Ukrainian officials projected a high degree of confidence in dealing with this onslaught. Ukrainian air defences have successfully dealt with a large number of drones; out of the aforementioned 330-drone-barrage, approximately two-thirds were shot down according to the government. However, the financial calculus of the drone campaign might not favour Ukraine:
analysts at the NGO Molfar estimated the total cost incurred by the Russians in launching drones in the one-month period from 13th September to 17th October to be not more than $18 million, while the cost to the Ukrainian government just in shooting down these drones was $28 million – not t0 mention the cost of repairing the damage caused by the attacks.
But Ukrainian air defences have also become more sophisticated: NATO in mid-October supplied hundreds of signal-jamming devices to Ukraine to counter the drone barrage, while the USA has just this month dispatched four highly advanced Avenger Surface-to-Air Missile systems. While 28, or even 100 million dollars seems like a massive amount, it pales in comparison to the billions of dollars of military aid that Ukraine has already received. So far, Ukraine seems resilient to Russia’s drone campaign.
Spy Satellites and Sanctions: Non-military Iranian aid to Russia
Iran’s Khayyam satellite is being used to bolster Russian surveillance of Ukraine.
Iran’s aid to Russia in the Ukraine conflict extends beyond the supply of weaponry. In August, the Russian space agency Roscosmos launched Iran’s Khayyam satellite, which has the ability to take high-resolution images of the Earth, into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Even before the launch, The Washington Post quoted American officials as reporting that before handing over control to Iran, Russia intended to use the satellite for “months, or even longer”, to obtain information from the Ukrainian battlefield.
According to Western diplomats, however, Iran can yet play a much more substantial role in propping up the Russian war machine. Since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the export of Iranian oil has been almost completely halted by American sanctions. With the advent of the Biden administration, negotiations on drawing up a new nuclear deal commenced. Although talks are still ongoing and nothing concrete is on the table, many diplomats involved in the talks say a new deal, which would result in the lifting of sanctions, is in the offing.
Theoretically, the re-entry of Iranian oil into global markets is not without benefits for America; depressing global oil prices, it will reduce the amount of income Russia gains from its own oil exports. But this lifting of sanctions can simultaneously be a boon to Russia. In December of this year, the EU will ban the import of Russian crude oil, followed by a complete ban on Russian oil products in February of 2023. The EU is the largest importer of Russian crude oil; with this embargo, Russia will lose access to its biggest source of foreign currency.
Here is where Iran comes in; if it is able to export oil into global markets, it would simply buy crude oil from Russia, and then sell equivalent amounts of its domestic production to overseas buyers. By satisfying their domestic demand for Russian oil, they would free up most of their production for export, while Russia would find an alternative buyer for its own oil. The West says the groundwork for this plan has already been laid; teams of energy and finance officials from both nations visited each other’s capitals in July and August of this year.
The US government is well aware of the dangers posed by this plan; the US Special Envoy to Iran recently declared that renegotiating the JCPOA is no longer a priority for the USA, and specifically cited Iran’s supply of drones to Russia as one of the reasons for this. However, the USA will have to weigh the need to shackle Russian oil exports, with the danger of leaving the Iranian nuclear program unrestrained.
The Diplomatic Frontier
President Putin meeting Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei
Iran’s involvement in the Ukraine war has already had significant repercussions in the diplomatic sphere. Russia clearly recognises the importance of this strategic partnership; President Putin’s visit to Tehran in July remains his only visit to a non-former-Soviet country since the beginning of the war. Ukraine for its part has stridently condemned Iran; it has slashed diplomatic relations and blasted Iranian support of Russia as “collaboration with evil.”
Iranian intervention is even winning new allies for Ukraine. Israel, which had long abstained from actively aiding Ukraine out of fear of destabilising relations with Russia, is now being pushed into choosing a side. Concerned that the experience obtained in Ukraine would allow Iran to hone its drone and missile strike capabilities on Israeli cities, Israel in November agreed to help Ukraine design an early-warning system. The two countries also struck an intelligence-sharing agreement. This represents a significant step up from prior aid, which was limited mostly to humanitarian assistance. In the words of the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, “the Iranian collaboration with Russia was a big shift for us [in obtaining Israeli aid].”
Iran’s active involvement in the Ukraine war represents a bold step on its part to flex its asymmetric warfare capabilities on a global scale, open a new frontier in its proxy war with the USA, and upgrade its status from a junior partner to an equal in its alliance with Russia. But the consequences of its actions are rippling out in ways it perhaps didn’t predict – impacting negotiations on a new nuclear deal, for example, or destabilising Israel-Russia relationships. For now, the ultimate consequences of the Islamic Republic’s gambit remain to be seen.