The US assesses Russia is now in possession of weapons-capable Iranian drones that they will likely deploy on the battlefield in Ukraine, Biden administration officials tell CNN. The Russians picked up the drones from an Iranian airfield earlier this month and transported them back to Russia in cargo planes in mid-August, the officials said.
Russian officials began training on the drones in Iran late last month, CNN previously reported, and the US now believes that Russia has officially purchased and transferred the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones – the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 – back to Russia, likely for use in the war in Ukraine.
Both types of UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are capable of carrying precision guided munitions and can be used for surveillance. Russian operators are still training on the drones inside Iran, the officials said, and the US believes that Russia intends to import hundreds of them to use for air-to-surface attacks, electronic warfare and targeting inside Ukraine.
The Washington Post first reported that the drones had been transferred to Russia.
State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel confirmed on Tuesday that the US assesses Russia has received the drones from Iran, noting that the “Russian military is suffering from major supply shortages in Ukraine because of sanctions and export controls, forcing Russia to rely on unreliable countries like Iran for supplies and equipment.”
“We’ll continue to vigorously enforce all US sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade and we will stand with our partners throughout the region against the Iranian threat,” he said.
The introduction of the Iranian drones, which can also be used for surveillance, could have a significant impact on the battlefield as Russia looks to blunt the impact of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that the US and its allies have provided to Ukraine. The HIMARS have a range of 49 miles and have enabled Ukraine to attack targets behind Russian front lines.
US intelligence officials believe, however, that when tested, many of the drones Russia has purchased from Iran have already experienced numerous failures, the officials said, so it is unclear how much of a game changer they will be for the Russians when deployed.
The Biden administration began warning in July that Russia was looking to purchase the drones amid acute supply shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine and western sanctions that have stymied new production efforts. Satellite imagery revealed that month showed that a Russian delegation had visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice since June to examine weapons-capable drones.
The news of the drone transfers comes as the Biden administration has expressed cautious optimism about a possible deal to revive the Iran nuclear deal. The deal’s detractors say that a new deal will result in sanctions relief for Iran and, in turn, a financial windfall that could enable Iran’s malign activities throughout the region and beyond.
White House officials have insisted, however, that the decision to reenter the nuclear deal should be motivated only by the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and should not be influenced by Iranian actions that fall outside the scope of their nuclear program.