Iran has become Russia’s “top military backer,” John Kirby of the National Security Council revealed on December 9. Iran’s decision to aid Russia in the war on Ukraine reflected the deepening strategic alliance with Moscow. Iran has provided Russia with hundreds of drones, including the Shahed-136 suicide drones and the Mohajer-6 reconnaissance and strike drone. “In exchange, Russia is offering Iran an unprecedented level of military and technical support,” Kirby briefed reporters. Moscow may be providing Tehran with helicopters and air defense systems. In the spring, Iranian pilots reportedly started training in Russia to fly the Sukhoi Su-35, an advanced fighter jet, which Tehran could receive “within the next year.”
Iran has long sought to modernize its aging air force, which includes planes procured under the monarchy that are prone to breaking down. Tehran has invested in drones and ballistic missiles as cheaper alternatives to modern fighters and bombers. The Russian jets “would significantly strengthen Iran's air force relative to its regional neighbors,” Kirby warned.
On the same day, the Biden administration announced new sanctions on three Russian entities involved in procuring Iranian drones. “The Kremlin is deploying these UAVs against Ukraine, including in large-scale attacks on civilian infrastructure,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. The State Department designated the following entities:
• Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS), the intended beneficiary of the drone agreement
• 924th State Center for Unmanned Aviation, which sent personnel to Iran for training on drones
• Military Transport Aviation (VTA), which was involved in transferring the drones to Russia
The following are statements from the National Security Council and the State Department.
National Security Spokesperson John Kirby
In a briefing on Dec. 9, 2022: “Iran is providing Russia with drones for use on the battlefield in Ukraine, drones that are being used to kill innocent Ukrainian people and destroy civilian infrastructure. In exchange, Russia is offering Iran an unprecedented level of military and technical support that is transforming their relationship into a full-fledged defense partnership. … This partnership poses a threat, not just to Ukraine, but to Iran's neighbors in the region. We have shared this information with partners in the Middle East and around the world.”
“Iran has become Russia's top military backer. Since August, Iran has transferred several hundred drones, UAVs, to Russia. Russia has been using these UAVs to attack Ukraine's critical infrastructure, and as I said earlier, to kill innocent Ukrainian people. The sales of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] commenced after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Iranian drones are being used specifically to bolster Russia's capabilities there. Russia has been using Iranian drones to strike energy infrastructure, depriving millions of Ukrainians power, heat, critical services. People in Ukraine today are actually dying as a result of Iran's actions.
“We expect Iranian support for the Russian military to only grow in coming months. We even believe that Iran is considering the sale of hundreds of ballistic missiles from Iran to Russia. We've said that before. We've also seen reports that Moscow and Tehran are considering the establishment of a joint production line for lethal drones in Russia. We urge Iran to reverse course, not to take the steps.
“The support's flowing both ways. Russia is seeking to collaborate with Iran on areas like weapons development and training. As part of this collaboration, we are concerned that Russia intends to provide Iran with advanced military components. Moscow may be providing Tehran with equipment such as helicopters and air defense systems. As of this spring, Iranian pilots have reportedly been training in Russia to learn how to fly the Su-35. This indicates that Iran may begin receiving aircraft within the next year. These fighter planes would significantly strengthen Iran's air force relative to its regional neighbors.
“This is a full-scale defense partnership that is harmful, as I said to Ukraine, to Iran's neighbors, and quite frankly to the international community. And we're going to be using the tools at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities, and we are prepared to do more. Russia and Iran have both violated obligations under U.N. Security Council 2231 by participating in these transfers of these drones from Iran to Russia without U.N. Security Council approval. We're going to continue to work with our allies and partners and with the U.N. on ways to hold them accountable. We're working with other countries to ensure their jurisdictions are not being exploited by Russia or Iran, and to prevent the movement of defense materiel transactions in support of this activity.
“As part of that effort, we're looking at options to bring together a group of like-minded countries to discuss Iran, Russia and military cooperation. We're also imposing costs on the actors involved in the transfer of Iranian drones to Russia for use in Ukraine.
“Today, we are announcing designations against three Russia-based entities that have been at the forefront of the acquisition and use of Iranian drones. These targets include the Russian Aerospace Forces, the intended beneficiary of the Russia-Iran agreement on transferring drones, and Russia's 924th State Center for Unmanned Aviation, which sent personnel to Iran to train on Iranian drones. We are obviously assessing further steps that we can take in terms of export controls to restrict Iran's access to sensitive technologies, and critically, we're working with allies and partners to ensure Ukraine has what it needs to defend and rebuild itself, including air defense equipment, and of course, electrical grid support.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
In a statement on Dec. 9, 2022: “Today, we are imposing sanctions on three Russian entities connected to Moscow’s growing military relationship with Tehran – a relationship that includes the transfer of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) from Iran. The Kremlin is deploying these UAVs against Ukraine, including in large-scale attacks on civilian infrastructure.
“The Department of State is designating the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS), 924th State Center for Unmanned Aviation, and the Command of the Military Transport Aviation (VTA) pursuant to Section 1(a)(i) of Executive Order 14024 for operating or having operated in the defense and related materiel sector of the Russian Federation’s economy. VKS was the intended beneficiary of the Russia-Iran agreement on transferring UAVs; the 924th State Center for Unmanned Aviation sent personnel to Iran for training on operating Iranian UAVs; and VTA was involved in the transfer of UAVs from Iran to Russia.
“Russia’s acquisition and Iran’s provision of these certain UAVs are in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and further fuels the conflict in Ukraine. The United States will continue to use every tool at our disposal to disrupt these transfers and impose consequences on those engaged in this activity.”