What lies behind Iran’s drones deal with Russia?
CIA intelligence reports have revealed that Russia plans to purchase hundreds of drones from Iran, including those capable of carrying weapons. According to the reports, Iran also intends to train Russian forces on how to use them.
It’s unlikely that Russia would have sought drones from Iran if it was not for the indirect war it is fighting against the US and the West in Ukraine. Given the fierce Russian battles against Ukrainian forces, the Kremlin realizes that it’s facing a severe problem particularly when it comes to the supply of weapons.
Since October 2020, when the arms embargo imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 expired, Russia and China have been attempting to strike arms deals with Tehran. Both of these global powers, however, are still concerned about the possible US sanctions resulting from these attempts.
The latest drone deal falls within the framework of strengthening the Iran-Russia alliance in the face of the US-led Middle East alliance — as part of the strategic competition between the global powers that appears to be shifting to the Middle East where it was recently capped by two summits, one in Jeddah and one in Tehran. These alliances also include increased military cooperation, as evidenced by this latest weapons pact.
The embargo on Iranian arms sales is a top priority for the US. In anticipation of the potential export of arms to Russia following the lifting of the arms embargo in October 2020, the US enacted a package of unilateral laws and measures to punish any party violating its additional sanctions on Iran. Following the drone deal, however, the US may impose further sanctions on both Russia and Iran.
In reality, however, given the massive sanctions already imposed on Russia — and its desire to defy the US — which seeks to break Moscow’s will through the Ukrainian crisis, the Kremlin has become uninterested in the prospect of further sanctions more severe than those currently imposed on it.
It should be noted, however, that the Russia-Iran deal will certainly worry and concern the Europeans, who now see Iran as a threat to their own security and stability, especially since Tehran is overtly supplying military aid to Putin, bolstering his position, at a time when Europe is putting pressure on Russia and imposing harsh sanctions as a result of Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
As a result, the Europeans may change their position on the nuclear talks with Tehran or impose conditions on the resumption of the deal itself. Since the issue now directly threatens their own security, European states may be able to usher in sanctions against Iran.
In conflict zones in the Middle East, meanwhile, Iranian drones, already given to Iran-aligned militia groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and sold to other countries without constraints, provide a realistic and alarming example of the gravity of the threat posed by these weapons to the security and stability of regional countries. This is turning them into battlegrounds or intensifying existing conflicts in a way that raises major concerns and threats to regional and international security and peace.
The latest drone deal falls within the framework of strengthening the Iran-Russia alliance in the face of the US-led Middle East alliance
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
There is a simple reason for such concerns: These armed militias and terror outfits, which lack the authority or legitimacy of nation-states, violate international laws governing the use of force in internal disputes or international relations. Given the lack of oversight or control imposed on them, Iran’s military cooperation with Russia could lead to militias being strengthened and given more drones, escalating global concerns about the possibility of wider use of these dangerous weapons, and causing the situation in conflict zones to spiral out of control.
The low cost of assembling, arming, shipping, and smuggling drones prompts countries to rely more on them in proxy wars, increasing their use and the global danger that they pose. This, in addition to the unrivaled ability of drones to evade Western, particularly American, air defenses deployed around the world, particularly in the Middle East, makes them exceptionally dangerous. The sum effect is that it increases the risk of proxy wars between different regional countries, ultimately exacerbating global security threats.
Drones threaten more than just the security and peace of countries where armed militias and terror outfits are deployed. They also endanger the security of neighboring countries, threatening targets from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. The Iran-backed Houthis, for example, have used drones to launch attacks on oil installations in the Gulf in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, targeting oil tankers in waterways, such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab, and the Arabian Gulf, posing a direct threat to energy security, energy shipping supplies, and global supply chains.
Drones become even more dangerous when used in internal disputes, such as those deployed in the recent attack on Iraq’s prime minister, who was merely attempting to assert his country’s sovereignty and independence, as well as underlining the nation’s affiliation to the Arab sphere. When it comes to militias’ use of drones, the Syrian, Yemeni, and Lebanese arenas provide realistic examples of such weapons being deployed to cause significant destruction and mayhem.
The Iranian drone deal with Russia appears to be a show of strategic symbolism, rather than a significant arms transaction that could possibly shift the balance of power in favor of either party. It sends a message to the region’s countries that Iran is not alone, as well as giving notice to Washington that Russia may expand the two global powers’ disputes and rivalry to other arenas.
Furthermore, this move also demonstrates that Moscow has very deliberately crossed Washington’s red lines in terms of the embargo on arms transactions with Iran, progressing to the point of importing weapons from the rogue state. There is no doubt that this step will encourage other countries to cut arms deals with Iran that aims to circumvent US restrictions. This could lead to Washington imposing additional curbs, controls, and sanctions on Iran’s military industries.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami