Iran and Russia drone alliance in Ukraine casts shadow on nuclear deal

Experts say the timing of the military collaboration between Tehran and Moscow could hurt chances for a new nuclear deal

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Iran's supply of attack drones to Russia is taking their partnership to a new level as a fragile nuclear deal hangs in the balance, experts told The National.

The US and UK accuse Tehran of supplying potentially hundreds of drones to Moscow for its war in Ukraine, despite efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear accord that would reopen trade with Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities.

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The loss of a Shahed-136 near the front lines suggests there is a realistic possibility that Russia is attempting to use the system to conduct tactical strikes
UK Ministry of Defence

The nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which former US president Donald Trump scrapped in 2018, is now hanging by a thread in part because of energised Iran-Russia co-operation.

“The Moscow-Tehran axis is definitely impacting the Iran nuclear talks. Russia is pressing Iranian hardliners to hold off on the JCPOA finalisation by offering economic deals and suggesting to them that once the pain of winter kicks in both Europe and the US will be in a weaker position and might accommodate further concessions,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK think tank.

Ms Vakil was referring to Russia’s restriction of gas exports to Europe, which is causing both sides economic damage but could cause a political storm in Europe as winter sets in.

Iran's drone fleet

Ukraine said this week it had shot down an Iranian Shahed-136 drone near Kharkiv in the north-east of the country.

The Shahed-136 is a long-range drone fitted with explosives with a claimed range of 2,000 kilometres.

Iran says it is a “loitering munition”, controlled by an operator for use as a kamikaze weapon. The drones are difficult to shoot down, presenting small targets that fly below most radar coverage.

The UK think tank RUSI says Russia has struggled to maintain its fleet of attack and reconnaissance drones because of a shortage of semiconductors used for sensors and on-board navigation devices.

Russia has no domestic capability to produce these microchips and its ability to import them is restricted by tough western trade sanctions imposed after Moscow sent its forces into Ukraine in February.

Iran, however, is adept at sourcing the components, learning how to circumnavigate trade sanctions and reverse engineer foreign technology after years of technology blockades.

US sanctions

Last week, Washington imposed sanctions on an Iranian company it accused of co-ordinating military flights to transport drones to Russia as well as three companies it said were involved in the production of the unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Russia and Iran are showing that they are not afraid to work together when it's in their interest, including in contravening international efforts to isolate them and sanction them,” said Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region at Crisis Group.

Iran and Russia have been working together for decades, although their relationship has never been an easy one, she said.

“Normally, the technology transfers go from Russia to Iran, so this is new. As Russia gets increasingly isolated internationally, Iran becomes a more viable partner,” Ms Esfandiary told The National.

Russia has in the past sold Iran sophisticated air defence systems, including the S-300 anti-aircraft system, currently being used by both sides in Ukraine.

While Russia has directly assisted Iran’s close ally Syria during a decade-long civil war, the direct defence co-operation between Moscow and Tehran has never been publicly touted in a time of war.

Kharkiv offensive

The Shahed-136’s apparent deployment near Kharkiv follows a major Ukrainian counter-offensive in the north-east that is pushing deep into Russian-held territory.

Analysts say Ukraine’s use of the US-supplied Himars missile system, which has been able to accurately strike Russian forces' artillery ammunition stores far behind the front lines, weakened their defences before Kyiv’s counter attack.

Russia has no comparable capability but needs to be able to conduct similar “deep strikes” on Ukrainian forces, a possible reason for using the long-range Shahed-136.

FILE - A launch truck fires the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) produced by Lockheed Martin during combat training in the high desert of the Yakima Training Center, Washington on May 23, 2011.  Ukraine has received about a dozen American-built HIMARS multiple rocket launchers and has used them to strike Russian ammunition depots, which are essential for maintaining Moscow's edge in firepower.  (Tony Overman / The Olympian via AP, File)

But the British government is not certain this is the case because of where the Iranian drone was reportedly downed, close to Russian lines.

“The loss of a Shahed-136 near the front lines suggests there is a realistic possibility that Russia is attempting to use the system to conduct tactical strikes rather than against more strategic targets farther into Ukrainian territory,” it said.

Nuclear deal concerns

Iran's supply of drones to Russia comes after stalled nuclear negotiations with the EU and, indirectly, the US.

The deal would allow UN inspectors to monitor Iranian nuclear sites in exchange for the relaxing of sanctions.

But a number of stumbling blocks, including a UN inquiry into unexplained uranium particles at four Iranian sites, are holding back an agreement.

Michael Knights, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, said Iran and Russia’s wartime military co-operation could further dampen chances of a wide-reaching nuclear deal.

“Iran may welcome a second permanently ostracised state [Russia] as a long-term partner. This conflict might have moved Russia fully to rogue state status, and thus Iran now has a nuclear armed, UNSC {United Nations Security Council] veto-wielding, sanction-evading compatriot,” he said.

Mr Knights said the bold drone collaboration, led on the Iranian side by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US has designated as a terrorist group, is a sign that hardliners are not interested in a deal that could open up Iran to the global economy.

“The IRGC may prefer international isolation as long as it is survivable — the North Korea model,” he said.

Updated: September 15, 2022, 10:03 AM
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