Iran is providing Russia with materials to build a drone manufacturing plant east of Moscow, according to a US intelligence report released on Friday.
As the Kremlin looks to lock in a steady supply of weaponry for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US believes a plant in Russia’s Alabuga special economic zone could be fully operational early next year.
“This is a full-scale defence partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbours and to the international community,” Mr Kirby said.
The White House released a satellite image of the plan's prospective location, about 900km east of Moscow.
President Joe Biden's administration publicly stated in December it believed Tehran and Moscow were considering creating a drone assembly line in Russia for Ukraine war.
The new intelligence suggests the project, in the Yelabuga region of Tatarstan, has moved beyond conception.
The plant “could be fully operational” in early 2024, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
“Russia has been using Iranian UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in recent weeks to strike Kyiv and terrorise the Ukrainian population,” he said.
He added that the military partnership between Tehran and Moscow “appears to be deepening”.
A senior democratic aide in the Senate told The National that Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez's office was “not all that surprised” that “this is the next move and the trajectory of the deepening of military co-operation between Tehran and Moscow”.
“It seems kind of in line with the way that they have been operating over the last year together,” the staff member said.
The aide added that Mr Menendez would soon introduce a Senate companion to a House bill on Iranian ballistic missiles and would be “looking at ways to reintroduce the Stop Iranian Drones Act”, which aimed to expand existing provisions requiring sanctions against people or entities that provide certain types of weapons to Iran.
Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Mike McCaul said the new intelligence highlighted the importance of his bipartisan Fight Crime Act, which would sanction anyone “supplying, transferring or developing Iranian missiles and drones”.
He also noted that international missile and drone restrictions on Tehran expire in October.
“Iran continues to support [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, providing hundreds of lethal long-range drones for use against civilians in clear violation of the UN missile embargo on Iran,” Mr McCaul told The National.
“We cannot give Iran free rein to spread terrorism and grow its unholy alliance with Russia.”
Mr Menendez's office added that “there is room for more” legislative action on Iran, but said the bulk of action needed is “primarily in the executive space”.
The White House shared new intelligence that it says shows Iran delivering drones via the Caspian Sea.
“The support is flowing both ways: from Iran to Russia, and from Russia to Iran,” Mr Kirby said.
US officials said the drones may be moved by ground transport to Seshcha and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, and then to Russian armed forces.
The US also issued a new advisory about the threat of Iran's drone-related activities, and the steps necessary to prevent further development of Tehran's drone programme.
The US said recent reports of Iran offering to provide production technology to Russia and Tajikistan may be part of a broader move to evade export controls.
Washington said Tehran may also be seeking to strengthen bilateral relationships and boost the profits of its export sector.
Iranian drones used by Russia in its war against Ukraine show that Tehran's UAV programme has used materials the country cannot use domestically, the White House said.
Washington said Iran particularly relies on US-branded items such as field programmable gate arrays, RF transceivers, microcontrollers and capacitors.
Iran has said it provided drones to Russia before the start of the war, but not since.
The US said Iran's UAV programme has also led to destabilisation in Yemen, with illegal shipments of drones being sent to the Houthi rebels, who have used the weapons to strike targets inside the country and abroad, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Iran last year opened a manufacturing facility in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan that produces Ababil-2 drones.