US intelligence analysts warn against Iran’s new ‘UAV diplomacy’

More US sanctions on Iran’s drone program as defense ties with Russia grow

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Washington designated a network of individuals and entities across four countries on Tuesday for their support of Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and military aircraft industry as US concerns grow over Tehran’s expanding drone threats.

The new sanctions come as senior US intelligence officials race to dispel Iranian claims that it is not supporting Russia in its war on Ukraine. Intel officials also want to show the international community, including the Europeans and Arabs, that the burgeoning Russia-Iran defense relationship could threaten them.

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In a recent off-camera briefing with Al Arabiya English and one other outlet, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officials and analysts explained the correlation between Iranian drones used to target American troops in Iraq and those used by Russia to kill civilians inside Ukraine.

“This is the first US attempt to show Iran is helping Russia, and this is to combat [Russian and Iranian] disinformation,” said one senior DIA analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity like others during the briefing.

Iran has repeatedly denied providing weapons to Russia, including this week when Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called on the US to provide proof.

European capitals and the UN have all heard US allegations but have urged Washington to provide proof of Iran supplying drones to Moscow.

In an updated and declassified report, the DIA produced a visual comparison of the UAVs used by Russia in Ukraine and Iranian UAVs used to attack US and partner forces in the Middle East. According to the DIA, the debris and components from Ukraine were consistent with the systems displayed at military expos and other venues in the Middle East.

DIA analysts showed a Shahed-131 recovered after an attack in Iraq’s Karbala in 2021. Alongside the Shahed-131 was the debris from different Shahed-131s used in Ukraine last Fall. The DIA analysts pointed to the satellite navigation antennas that were identical in both, as well as the honeycomb-like mesh structure used inside the drones. The honeycomb-like design is an Iranian signature, as is the wing stabilizer in drones used in Iraq to target US troops and in Ukraine.

The engine components of drones in Iraq and Ukraine are identical, including the rotary engine, compartment cover, engine throttle body, relay board, processing module case cover, and processing module case.

It is worth noting that Iran carried out and publicly claimed an attack on Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq in September 2022. The debris of the UAVs used in that attack removes doubt that the origin of the drones was Iranian. The DIA said that the same UAV components in that attack and a separate Russian attack in Ukraine around the same time led to the conclusion that both of these systems were Iranian.

Asked what route was being used to transfer drones from Iran to Russia, intel analysts said transit through the Caspian Sea was now the preferred method.

“Iran is sending drones and support to produce drones inside of Russia,” one analyst told Al Arabiya English while highlighting satellite imagery that showed a drone production facility being built in Russia.

Iran has advisors on the ground and is sending material support for the drones to be produced inside Russia instead of shipping already-built UAVs from Tehran to Moscow.

Tuesday’s sanctions on Iran’s drone network targeted three individuals in Iran, two individuals and one entity in China, three entities in Russia and two individuals in Turkey.

Iran’s UAV procurement, development, and proliferation destabilize the Middle East region and support Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine,” the State Department said.

Recovered Shahed-131 wing stabilizers and engines at the Defense Intelligence Agency. (DIA)
Recovered Shahed-131 wing stabilizers and engines at the Defense Intelligence Agency. (DIA)

Over the summer, the US, Albania, France, the UK, and Ukraine called on the UN Security Council to probe the Russian use of Iranian UAVs in Ukraine.

Iranian UAV diplomacy

But what is more concerning is the future of Iran’s drone program and its ties with Russia, which a DIA analyst said was transitioning from a purely transactional relationship to a true partnership.

“The groundwork is being set [for such a partnership],” the analyst said.

The danger of the Iranian drones being used in Russia is that Tehran has a battlefield to use as a testing facility for what works and what doesn’t.

On the flip side, the threat is relative. “We’ve gotten better, and we’ve observed to see what works, too,” the analyst said.

However, the risk for Gulf and other regional countries lies in the “new way” Iran operates with low-cost, easy-to-put-together drones and how they continuously innovate their UAV systems.

“Does the region have the proper defense capabilities to defend against dozens of drones,” the analyst asked.

More recovered parts of Iranian-made Shahed drones on display at the Defense Intelligence Agency. (DIA)
More recovered parts of Iranian-made Shahed drones on display at the Defense Intelligence Agency. (DIA)

He was referring to a new method used by the Russians to deploy multiple drones at once into Ukraine. Previously, Iran or Iran-backed militias would fire one or two drones at US or allied forces in Iraq or Syria. The new method could be the future of drone wars, intel analysts said.

As for the Iranian president’s claims that Iran was not sending drones to Russia, the senior analyst said the proof was displayed for think tanks, government officials from over 20 countries, and reporters to see. “This directly counters that [Iran’s denial], and this is the only place in the world that there is an Iranian drone intact for all to see,” the same analyst said.

With crippling sanctions preventing the Iranian regime from proper economic and financial relationships with other countries, it could turn to exporting and selling UAV technologies. “This time, Iran helped Russia, but it could be someone else in the future,” the analyst warned.

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