Russia is providing 'unprecedented' military support to Iran in exchange for drones, officials say

Russia is providing ‘unprecedented’ military support to Iran in exchange for drones, officials say

Russia is now providing an “unprecedented level” of military and technical support to Iran in exchange for Tehran supplying weapons for the war in Ukraine, senior Biden administration officials say.

As part of the enhanced partnership, Russia may be providing Iran with advanced military equipment and components, including helicopters and air defense systems. In the spring, Iranian pilots trained in Russia to fly the Sukhoi Su-35, a Russian fighter jet, which the officials say indicates Iran “may begin receiving the aircraft within the next year.”

The White House had previously said it believes that Iran was supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, but the relationship between the two nations is transforming into “a full-fledged defense partnership” with weapons and military expertise flowing in both directions, the officials said.

Russia is looking to collaborate with Iran on weapons development, including possibly establishing a joint production line for drones in Russia, according to the officials.

“This partnership poses a threat not just to Ukraine, but to Iran’s neighbors in the region,” one senior administration official said. “We have shared this information with partners in the Middle East and around the world.” 

An undated image showing the wreckage of what Ukrainian officials described as an Iranian-made Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk.APOn Friday, the Biden administration is expected to designate three Russia-based entities that have been involved in the transfer of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for use in Ukraine, the officials said. Those entities include the Russian Aerospace Forces, which receives the UAVs, and Russia’s 924th State Center for Unmanned Aviation. Personnel from the 924th traveled to Iran to receive training in how to operate the Iranian weapons.  

The officials said the U.S. is also “looking at options to bring together a group of like-minded countries to discuss Iran-Russia military cooperation,” and is working with other nations to ensure Russia and Iran cannot move equipment, weapons or money through their countries to support this new partnership.

“We are imposing costs on the actors involved in the transfer of Iranian UAVs to Russia for use in Ukraine,” one official said. “We are assessing further steps we can take in terms of export controls to restrict Iran’s access to sensitive technologies.”

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Iran has become Russia’s top military supporter, selling several hundred UAVs to Moscow since August alone. Russia has used these drones to attack Ukraine’s energy and critical infrastructure in strikes that have killed civilians. 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receives Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presence of his counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, on July 19, 2022.
SalamPix / Shutterstock fileThe U.S. believes Iran is considering the sale of hundreds of ballistic missiles to Russia, the senior administration officials said. And they expect Iranian support for the Russian military to continue to grow in the coming months.

“We urge Iran to reverse course and not to take these steps,” one official said. “We are using the tools at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities — and we are prepared to do more.” 

Later Friday, the Biden administration is expected to announce the next security assistance package for Ukraine. The package, valued around $275 million, will include more ammunition for the advanced rocket launchers known as HIMARS and for Ukrainian artillery.

Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Carol E. Lee

Carol E. Lee is an NBC News correspondent.  » …
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