October 24, 2022

IntelBrief: Iran Expands Military Support to Russian War Effort

Iranian Army via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • Iran is materially supporting Russia’s war effort in Ukraine by selling Moscow armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and ballistic missiles.
  • Russia’s purchases of Iranian equipment illustrates the significant shortfalls in Moscow’s existing arsenal and an inability to manufacture military equipment needed to sustain the war effort.
  • The Iranian-made weaponry will continue to be used to kill and injure civilians and damage vital infrastructure but will not materially change Moscow’s fortunes on the battlefield.
  • By aiding Russia, Iran’s regime is trying to show strength on the international stage, but it risks further aggravating domestic unrest and triggering additional economic sanctions.

As of mid-October, Iran appears to be significantly increasing its material support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. In recent months, Iran has been sending Moscow a steady supply of Shahed and Mohajer armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS, drones), which the Russian military has used to target civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine. The uptick in strikes on Ukrainian cities far from the frontlines has been interpreted as a Russian reaction to a series of battlefield setbacks and the embarrassing explosions which damaged the Kerch Bridge, a key logistical corridor linking Russia to Crimea. It is also reflective of the newly appointed Russian military commander, General Sergey Surovikin’s, preference for using attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure to demoralize the enemy – a tactic he used extensively as a commander in Syria. Some attacks have targeted residential neighborhoods, while others have struck electrical substations and fuel storage facilities, both of which are vital to providing heat and electricity now and particularly for the coming winter. However, there is no evidence, to date, that the drone barrages have reduced Ukrainian public support for the effort to recapture territory seized by Russia. Nor have the attacks materially benefitted Moscow’s disorganized and faltering war effort. Tehran has denied selling the weapons to Russia, but U.S. and European officials have categorically dismissed the Iranian denials. In mid-October, U.S. officials confirmed press reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had sent trainers to Crimea to help Russian forces operate and maintain the Iranian systems. The hands-on assistance represents a significant deepening of Iranian involvement in Moscow’s war effort. That Russia turned to Iran to supply the systems corroborates the view of many experts that Moscow has underinvested in armed drone technology.

In October, Tehran appeared to double down on supporting the Russian war effort, agreeing to sell Russia several hundred of its Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which have 200 and 450 mile ranges, respectively. The reported sale agreement followed an October 6 visit to Russia by Iran's First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, two senior officials from the IRGC, and an official from the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s highest foreign and defense policymaking body. The first missile shipments will begin by the end of October, according to one Iranian diplomat. The reported missile sales appears to confirm assessments by U.S. and European officials that Moscow is likely running low on these weapons. Unlike the Shahed drones, which are a type of cheap mass-producible loitering munition, these ballistic missiles are complex and expensive systems and will likely be used to strike high-payoff military targets.

The geopolitical implications of the Iranian drone and missile sales to Russia exceed their potential to rescue Moscow’s battlefield fortunes. In the early 1990s, Iran turned to Russia to rebuild its conventional arsenal after the Iran-Iraq War, buying Russian-made tanks, combat aircraft, submarines, and other systems. Russia helped broker the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal; efforts to revive that deal since early 2021 have stalled over the intractable distrust between Washington and Tehran, and progress in the talks will likely be further jeopardized by the Iranian weapons sales to Russia. Since 2013, Russia and Iran have been cooperating in Syria to assist the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In recent years, Tehran and Moscow have both advocated production cuts by major oil exporters to keep prices elevated. The recent missile and drone sales will strengthen the Iran-Russia military and strategic relationship and the multilateral sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have given Tehran and Moscow common cause against U.S.-led economic pressure. Despite this overlap in security interests, Russia will likely be wary of Saudi perceptions of its ties to Iran and will maintain a limited transactional relationship with Tehran as a result.

The decision by Iran’s leaders to supply the weaponry suggests that the benefits to Tehran of appearing to be a significant power on the regional and world stage outweigh the consequences of siding with the aggressor in the war in Ukraine. As Iran’s leaders grapple with the highest levels of domestic unrest since 2009, they hope to continue projecting an outward image of strength. The regime also calculates that the sale to Russia of the same weapons Iran has transferred to allies around the region – and which they have used to significant effect – will enhance Tehran’s regional leverage and influence. However, the Iranian government’s strategy carries risks. The arms sales to Russia might further incite Iranian protesters who demand an end to Iran’s support for authoritarian regimes and its involvement in regional conflicts. Additionally, the regime might have opened itself to additional multilateral sanctions: the United States and its European partners reportedly consider the sale of armed drone technology to Russia as a violation of an Annex to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed and enshrined in international law the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. U.S. and European Union officials have said they will impose additional penalties on Iran because of the sales. U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said on October 18 that the United States “will continue to take practical, aggressive steps to make these weapons sales harder, including sanctions, export control actions against any entities involved." Yet, despite the risks, the Iranian sales to Russia leave little doubt that, as long as the current Iranian regime remains in power, it will make common cause with Russia as a counterweight to perceived U.S. global hegemony.