As Russia continues its illegal invasion of Ukraine, it has secured crucial support from Iran through its acquisition of Iranian-designed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. The Washington Post recently reported that Tehran and Moscow finalized an agreement in November that would pave the way for the two countries to manufacture hundreds of drones inside Russia. Vladimir Putin’s government and the Islamic Republic will move “rapidly to transfer designs and key components that could allow production to begin within months.” With its own assembly line, Moscow will be able to accelerate the production of its own domestic drones as the war rages on.
Russia’s use of lethal Iranian drones during operations in Kyiv, Odessa, and elsewhere in Ukraine has already added to the civilian population’s suffering. Iran’s Shahed-131, Shahed-136, and Mohajer-6 drones have played a major role in the destruction of Ukraine’s water pipelines, rail lines, power grids, and other infrastructure—worsening the country’s existing humanitarian crises as winter approaches. From Moscow’s perspective, Iranian drones serve useful purposes beyond kinetic military action, including information operations and the psychological effect they have on the Ukrainian military and citizenry.
Russia’s growing reliance on Iranian UAVs to execute its war in Ukraine highlights significant changes to the international geopolitical landscape, as the partnership between Moscow and Tehran deepens. Iran and Russia have common cause in pursuing efforts aimed at weakening U.S. hegemony. Both are similarly oriented against the West, and both suffer from heavy U.S.-led sanctions. Russia sees Iranian drones as easily accessible and cost-effective. Tehran has curried favor with Moscow by making itself increasingly useful amid this Russian military campaign.
There are numerous ways the Islamic Republic may benefit from providing Moscow with thousands of its drones. While strangled by crippling sanctions, drone sales provide Iran’s government with crucial revenue while also granting greater leverage in its relationship with Moscow. As Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Steven Feldstein writes, the deployment of Iranian UAVs to Ukraine offers Tehran “an important propaganda opportunity” that serves to further legitimize the country’s weapons industry in the eyes of “rogue regimes.” These governments face great difficulties acquiring such weaponry, due to international sanctions. As Iran’s role as an exporter of unmanned technology becomes more robust, it may well acquire “future clients.”
Refocusing European Attention on Iran
Moscow’s use of Iranian-made drones in Ukraine has the potential to transform the Middle East’s security architecture. There is no denying that the Iranian-Russian partnership has strengthened significantly since February 24. In this context, the West’s financial warfare against both Tehran and Moscow has only pushed them into closer alignment. However, some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Israel have also continued their geopolitical tilt toward Moscow, creating an interesting dynamic at a time in which the prospects for reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remain dim.
“The fact that Russia is relying on Iranian drones as opposed to Chinese drones or those from another maker, including itself, [combined with] the Russian invasion and the loss of the JCPOA have pushed Russia and Iran together,” Dr. Theodore Karasik, a fellow for Russian and Middle Eastern Affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, said in an interview with Gulf International Forum. “Now this combination has alerted the Gulf states to their relations with Russia, as well their relations with Iran.”
For the Islamic Republic, the war in Ukraine has provided Tehran a chance to “show off its military capabilities and to send a message to its rivals in the region,” said Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on Iran at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in an interview with Gulf International Forum. “The Ukraine war could probably provide a good testing ground for Iranian armaments—in [this] case, specifically drones—so that Iran would see how they would work in the real battlefield in a real war and maybe go for some adjustments or adaptations…to be used in a future regional war between Iran and its rivals or adversaries,” added Dr. Azizi. “This was…part of the larger Iranian logic in providing Russia with drones.”
Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain have long perceived Iran’s drone and missile programs as an enormous danger to their security. These drones have been found in the hands of Tehran-backed militias in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—militias that effectively function as arms of Iran’s foreign policy, but whose existence gives Tehran plausible deniability in any operations they carry out. Drones produced by Iran struck Saudi Arabia’s oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019 and Abu Dhabi in January 2022—two episodes highlighting the threat Iranian drones pose to GCC states.
Russia’s use of this increasingly advanced Iranian technology presents both opportunities and sources of major concern for officials in Gulf Arab states and Israel, who have long believed that Western policymakers—with few exceptions—have failed to fully appreciate this danger’s nature and magnitude. The use of Iran’s drones in a European country is an opportunity for GCC members and Tel Aviv to convince Western governments of the severity and sophistication of the Iranian drone program. “The more evidence of Iran’s involvement in the war in Ukraine is made public, the more of a problem Iranian drones and Iran’s basic drone and missile program becomes for the Western countries, especially [European states],” said Dr. Azizi. “This is for the first time that the Europeans are waking up to the fact that Iran’s military progress, Iran’s achievements in the military field, is not only a potential threat to its neighbors and other countries in the region, but…can be a threat to Europe’s security as well… In that sense, the GCC countries and Israel are hopeful that this may…push [Western countries] toward pressuring Iran into giving some concessions on its drone and missile program.”
As Iran’s drone industry grows, leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking advantage of an “opportunity to double down on their own concern of drones proliferation in the world and the region,” Dr. Abdolrasool Divsallar, a visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, told Gulf International Forum. “[Riyadh and Abu Dhabi] are using this opportunity to build up their argument that we need to find a solution to Iranian drones. In this way, they grab more attention to their own problems while asking for more security assistance and integration of air defense systems in the region, and even buying new air defense systems in the region.”
Lessons to be Learned
The conflict in Ukraine also presents an opportunity for Iran’s regional adversaries to analyze Iran’s UAVs and evaluate their effectiveness. These states “are likely to benefit by getting a look at the [Iranian-made] drones and learning their vulnerabilities,” Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Gulf International Forum.
Ultimately, one can draw parallels between the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in the sense that both conflicts provided foreign actors a unique chance to bolster their images as military powers by deploying their weaponry on the battlefield via proxy forces.
For Iran’s neighbors and other actors in the Middle East, the extent to which Ukraine serves as a testing ground for the Islamic Republic’s drones will determine how much they can learn about these platforms. There are many lessons for the Gulf Arabs and Israelis to discover about Tehran’s UAVs that will be helpful when preparing for a potential future conflict involving these Iranian systems.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.