Iranian drones over Kyiv are an omen of new global threats
The world is scrambling to respond to manifestations of increasingly symbiotic Russian-Iranian coordination that flout the full spectrum of international norms and fundamentally undermine global security.
Iran rushed to support Russia in its Ukrainian hour of need after years of Moscow proffering lifelines to its southern ally: Russia repeatedly used its Security Council veto to shield Iran, it provided Tehran with defense and sanctions-evasion assistance, and crucially came to its rescue in Syria.
Tehran has reciprocally reinvigorated Russia’s floundering war efforts with the provision of hundreds of cut-price kamikaze drones and other munitions. This multibillion-dollar deal includes Iran assisting Moscow in establishing its own domestic war drone industry, aspiring to manufacture 6,000 drones by mid-2025.
Moscow has sought to manufacture a variant of Iran’s Shahed 136 attack drone with a range of over 1,600 kilometers. Because of its noisy, primitive lawnmower-like engine, Ukrainians nicknamed the Shahed 136 “the flying moped," but the weapon nevertheless had a devastating impact on Kyiv’s civilian infrastructure and grain silos holding thousands of tons of essential food supplies for the developing world.
Russian technicians aspire to overcome Iran’s outdated manufacturing techniques and poor quality control. Around 25 percent of drones shipped from Iran were inoperable. The Washington Post reported that Russia wanted to advance from current limited Shahed launches to mass strikes using hundreds of kamikaze drones, with technology enabling drones to swarm and autonomously coordinate targeted strikes. The likes of Hezbollah, North Korea and Daesh will be watching such innovations closely and learning lessons of their own.
Agreements are in place for sharing such innovations back with Tehran, in an unvirtuous cycle of mutual cooperation that would elevate the military capabilities of both these aggressors to entirely new levels. Iran furthermore hopes to secure future access to Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense systems and Su-35 fighter aircraft.
Moscow and Tehran achieved all this despite heavy international sanctions. This is particularly remarkable, given that 90 percent of these drone systems’ electronic components were manufactured by Western companies.
Major efforts are meanwhile afoot to harmonize the Russian and Iranian banking systems with the goal of sanctions evasion. Hundreds of banks are thought to be involved, with the possibility of further link-ups with Chinese and Asian banking systems. The two nations are building a 3,200-kilometer sanctions-defying transcontinental trade route from eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean. This includes upgrades on Caspian Sea ports, a rail link via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a Russian-built 164km railway through Iran down to the Bandar Abbas port.
Drone strikes against Kyiv power stations are merely the tip of the iceberg of this emerging transcontinental system ... putting Europe, the GCC and Southeast Asia under threat of military aggression.
Plans are also in place for the Revolutionary Guard’s Khatam Al-Anbiya conglomerate to build a rail route linking Iran to Iraq’s Faw port, with connections through into Syria and the Mediterranean, thereby seamlessly connecting up Tehran’s “Axis of Evil” allies. When China’s Belt and Road initiative is factored in, it is easy to see how trans-Asian transport and banking connections render Western sanctions an irrelevance.
American negotiations with Tehran aim to halt further nuclear enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. With commendable optimism, Washington seeks commitments for halting drone shipments and Iran-Russia military cooperation. Given their geographic proximity, any such understandings would be near impossible to police, particularly as Iran and Russia routinely deny such cooperation exists in the first place.
Alongside drones, Iran possesses by far the region’s largest ballistic missiles program — although not necessarily the most effective. Iran, Russia, China and North Korea are meanwhile among the foremost proponents of cyberwarfare, another means of waging war on the cheap. The critical infrastructure of Arab Gulf states and European nations has already endured thousands of cyberattacks. Iran generously shares its drone, missile and cyber expertise with proxy militias in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, and has staged repeated strikes throughout the GCC, including the 2019 attack on Saudi oil processing facilities.
However, it is perfectly possible that these rogue regimes will be the death of each other. This mutual shielding, locally and on the international stage, lulls leaderships into a false sense of security that they can massacre their civilians and menace their neighbors with impunity. Yet last year’s mass uprising by Iranian schoolgirls and defiant women, and the botched coup by one of Vladimir Putin’s closest warlord allies, highlighted how fragile and unpopular these tinpot juntas really are. Some day soon these brawling regimes will lurch into a fight they can’t win.
Iran’s recent incorporation into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICs grouping also gives rise to two bodies through which Russia, Iran and China can project their anti-democratic agendas. The agreement with China to invest up to $400 billion in Iran’s economy over the next 25 years has meanwhile seen a major upgrade in this bilateral relationship, with a similar agenda for undermining Western global supremacy.
Drone strikes against Kyiv power stations are merely the tip of the iceberg of this emerging transcontinental system, specifically established to subvert international norms and facilitate the proliferation of dirty money, nuclear technology and heavy weaponry — putting Europe, the GCC and Southeast Asia under threat of military aggression.
Dirt-cheap production costs of armed drones and cyberwarfare have profound implications for the manner in which future conflicts are waged, raising the prospect that Tehran-backed paramilitary and terrorist groups could stage asymmetric attacks against cities using swarms of UAVs and missiles.
While primitive drones and rockets are no match for the missile defense systems of Israel and America, this threat of military “overmatch” keeps the generals awake at night worrying about Iran, North Korea, or Hezbollah simultaneously launching such large numbers of munitions that they overwhelm the ability of defense systems to neutralize the onslaught.
With Ukraine now also staging indiscriminate drone attacks across Russia and stepping up its own production of such munitions, this is a reminder to Putin that the ability to wage war on the cheap cuts both ways. It is meanwhile simply a matter of time before a whole spectrum of other minor players join this arms race.
We should not be simply trying to appease or ignore major producers of bargain basement munitions, such as Iran. This threat of mass carnage weapons so cheap they can be purchased by someone on an average income should be confronted head on, with rigorously enforced international conventions restricting their manufacture, sale, and use, and the export of key components if we are to avoid a scenario in which wildcat strikes on critical infrastructure or terrorists menacing entire cities become the norm.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.