Tehran’s kamikaze drones have recently figured in Ukrainian skies, hitting both civilian infrastructure and military targets, which elicited condemnation from Kiev and its allies.
The seven-month-long Ukraine fighting has seen tens of thousands of deaths on both sides, increasing global fears over possible escalation of the conflict to neighbouring countries and other regions where the West and Russia have been on opposite sides.
Russia’s recent drone strikes against different Ukrainian cities following deadly explosions on the Kerch Bridge, which connects Moscow-annexed Crimean peninsula with the Russian mainland, have alarmed Western capitals because the armed UAVs are Iranian-made.
While Iran denies selling its drones to Russia and their use in the Ukraine conflict, it’s accepted universally that they are Iranian-made, which shows how the conflict drew in other regional actors like Tehran. Russia also denies that it used Iranian drones against Ukraine.
“Some unofficial sources in Iran accept that Tehran has sold these war-crafts to Russia. Iran has every right to sell its war-crafts to any state, no one can stop the country from doing this,” says a Tehran-based political analyst, who wants to stay anonymous.
While Iran sees Russia “as a market”, the Iranian analyst does not believe that Tehran is completely on the Russian side in the Ukraine conflict, citing the Shia-majority country’s recent UN abstention vote in regard to Moscow’s referendums in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions held two weeks ago.
While an overwhelming majority voted in favour of condemning Russia’s “illegal so-called referendums”, Iran did not join, with a minority group, including Belarus, Syria, Nicaragua and North Korea, voting against UN’s condemnation of Moscow’s annexation.
But the analyst also points out Iran’s increasing dependence on Russia for its political and economic needs. “They can not be against Russia in this conflict,” she tells TRT World. “It is just the drones right now. But if Russia asks for more they have to agree with whatever this big brother wants,” she says, referring to the possibility that Iran might increase its involvement in the Ukraine conflict as the war continues to deepen.
“We are close to winter and they will need some food resources and other things,” she says, referring to Russia’s logistic needs. Other analysts also draw attention to the fact that Russia is running out of weapons as the military conflict drags on, making many policymakers in the Kremlin nervous.
According to Kiev’s intelligence services, Russia has demanded that Iran sell thousands of its Shahed-136 drones for use across Ukrainian territories. Even Tehran recently appeared to recognise that Russian use of Iranian drones has passed the point of plausible deniability for the country. Tehran “should not remain indifferent” to the Russian use of Iranian drones against Ukrainians if it is proven so, said Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on Monday.
“The Russians have purchased Iranian-built combat drones and apparently hundreds of Iranian kamikaze drones. These fill a badly needed void in Russian air capabilities and are enabling the Russians to carry the war deeper into Ukraine on a 24/7 basis,” says Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired professor of military history at the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
As a result, under current circumstances, both Russia and Iran need each other, analysts view. “Does Tehran have anything to lose? Iran sees itself completely alone, they just have Russia right now and they have to keep it,” the Iranian analyst says. Iran has long faced sweeping Western sanctions and its isolation has further increased after the US withdrawal from the landmark nuclear deal in 2018.
Russian-Iranian military cooperation
Russia and Iran have long been allies across critical regions from Syria to Central Asia, and most recently, the Ukraine conflict, which is the latest extension of the connections between the two Eurasian states. In the Syrian civil war, both states have fought together against anti-Assad forces, deepening their political coordination.
“The supreme leader [Ali Khamenei] seems to have concluded that Putin’s failure in Ukraine could undermine one of Iran’s sole allies and thus weaken Iran’s position in the region,” says Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director of International Crisis Group, an American think-tank, referring to Tehran’s ties with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
“As such, (in Ukraine) Iran is doing the same thing it did in Syria to save the Assad regime: opting to become belligerent in a conflict away from its borders,” Vaez tells TRT World. The ongoing anti-government Iranian protests are also a great concern for Tehran’s establishment, which sees them as a Western plot against the country, pushing the country closer to Russia.
Despite increasing ties between Moscow and Tehran, Vaez, however, believes that Iran will probably not provide allied ground forces to Russia to fight Ukrainians as it did in the Syrian conflict in which many Tehran-allied Shia proxies fought alongside Russians to keep the Assad regime in power.
“There is a limit to how far Iran can go in supporting Russia. It can share its asymmetric warfare technology, but it is unlikely to provide ground forces to an extent that would become a game changer,” he says.
Like Vaez, the Tehran-based Iranian analyst also sees deploying pro-Iranian Shia militias in Ukraine a slim possibility, believing that Ukraine and Syria are two different battlegrounds for Iran.
The anti-Assad rebellion was a close threat against Iran, she says, adding that Tehran’s involvement in different conflicts from Syria to Afghanistan is somewhat related to its political ideology based on its revolutionary roots. But the political situation in Ukraine is different from Syria or Lebanon, she adds.
On the other hand, according to Western officials, Tehran deployed its trainers in the Crimean peninsula to help the Russian military operate Iranian drones better and more accurately across Ukrainian territories, showing the Middle Eastern country’s growing involvement in the conflict. Tehran is also said to be in discussion with Moscow on sending surface-to-surface missiles and other rocket systems to Russia, other sources claim.
“It is reported that Iranian drone technicians have been deployed in the Crimean peninsula. It wouldn't surprise me if Iran sent drone pilots as paid Russian mercenaries. This would help Putin as well as provide the Iranian military with very valuable combat experience for its drone pilots and technicians,” Erickson tells TRT World.
Increasing Russian-Iranian military alliance worries not only Israel, a country which has various problems with pro-Tehran groups — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah to some Palestinian groups — but also countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which compete with the Shia-majority country to get an upper hand across the Middle East.
“Much before the Ukrainian crisis, Iran transferred its UAVs to its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen. Having been battle tested in those regions, it is now able to produce medium altitude long-endurance UAVs and kamikaze-type UAVs which are far more cost efficient than their western versions,” says Ulas Pehlivan, a military analyst.
How effective are Iranian drones?
While Iran has significantly improved its drone technology in recent years, its effectiveness is no closer to highly-developed armed UAVs like TB2, Türkiye’s homegrown Bayraktar drones, according to military experts.
But the long history of Western sanctions has forced Iran to make its defence industry more self-sufficient, pushing the country to develop its own rocket and missile technologies, says Pehlivan.
“The disposable kamikaze-type Shahed-136 UAV uses satellite navigation systems for guidance and its accuracy is not very high, therefore, they are used in flocks. Their effective range is probably less than half of the officially-claimed 1000km,” Pehlivan tells TRT World. These UAVs can also be eliminated through jammers and various air defence systems, anti-aircraft artillery etc, the analyst adds.
But last week’s widespread destruction across Ukrainian territories also shows that when Iran-made drones are used extensively, it is not feasible to cover all areas with air defence systems, hence the protection priorities need to be set for Ukraine accordingly, Pehlivan says.
“They seem to be very useful striking power plants and energy systems. They are also being used to conduct terror raids against Ukrainian civilians. They complement existing Russian air capabilities and systems. Moreover, they keep the Ukrainian air defence and alert system on guard 24/7, which is very exhausting and expensive,” says Erickson. “Overall, this is very cost-effective for Russia,” he adds.
Ukrainian concerns related to Iranian drones were clear in recent Kiev statements.
“We must have instruments to neutralise the missile threats of the Russian-Iranian military alliance,” said Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov last week. He urged the West to deploy Patriot missile defence systems to Ukraine, calling for more sanctions against Tehran.