Looking to Moscow, Iran Steps Up Measures to Bolster Its Air Power

05 Jan 2023

Looking to Moscow, Iran Steps Up Measures to Bolster Its Air Power

Drone exports and cooperation with Russia are part of a quid pro quo strategy that could provide a much-coveted boost to Iranian air defense and military hardware.

By Robert Mason

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW)

January 5, 2023


Iran has supplied up to several hundred unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia since President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. And Tehran sent drone advisors to Russia beginning in July. Having initially kept the decision secret, it was not immediately clear what Iran’s rationale was for supplying drones beyond advancing the objectives of a much-needed ally on the battlefield. Tehran may have been aiming to demonstrate the impact it could have on European security during nuclear deal talks. It may have been attempting to illustrate that Washington’s return to a “maximum pressure” policy would be ineffective should nuclear talks collapse or if the Republicans return to power after the 2024 U.S. presidential election. It may even have been an attempt to leverage short-term influence over Russia after the U.S. secretary of state asked Moscow to pressure Iran to agree to a new nuclear deal in January 2022. Regardless of the intentions, the move has added a degree of lethality in the war in Ukraine and risked further escalation. At a minimum, it has added a strand of Russian dependence on Iran and supported speculation about Russian-Israeli relations given Israeli preoccupation with Iranian hard power projection and Russian-Turkish relations.

It has since become clear that Iran has been seeking to implement a quid pro quo strategy in aligning with Russia on Ukraine. In a December 9, 2022 statement by the U.S. National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby said, in exchange for Iran becoming a top military backer for Russia’s war in Ukraine, Russia is offering Iran “unprecedented military and technical support.” Most U.S. concerns relate to advanced military hardware, such as helicopters, air defense systems, and Su-35 advanced fighter jets, that could be delivered to Iran. Iranian pilots have already been training in Russia. Any transfer of certain combat drones or missiles to Russia is viewed by the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the European Union as in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran.

A reciprocal deal in Russian military sales is aimed at addressing an imbalance of aerial power in the Gulf largely due to the strong U.S.-led international sanctions regime against Iran, which already has an obsolescent air force and requires urgent attention to strengthen it. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been free to invest heavily to upgrade their respective militaries over recent years, often using a diversified arms purchasing strategy that includes Russia. The details of a 2021 Saudi-Russian military deal remain opaque, however the UAE has been clear in its collaboration with Russia on developing the Su-75 Checkmate fighter, which was unveiled in July 2021. This deal and Chinese military sales have been useful fallback positions in the UAE to withstand conditionality tied to the sale of 50 F-35 fighter jets from the United States. Iran’s importation of Russian Su-35 fourth generation fighters with strengths in targeting and endurance would close the gap with other regional states that have also been actively courting Russia, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

Drones and missiles increasingly form part of the Iranian military-industrial complex. Indeed, the country has been geared toward conflict since the Iran-Iraq War. Increasingly sophisticated drones represent a lethal and evolving threat to security in the Middle East. Attempts by al-Qaeda to attack a Saudi oil processing facility in Abqaiq in 2006 and the reported Iranian use of drones against Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019 demonstrate the vulnerability of critical infrastructure in the Gulf. The 2019 Abqaiq and Khurais attacks temporarily knocked out 50% of the kingdom’s oil output and led to the biggest spike in oil prices over the course of a single day on record. The attacks were not met with an immediate and direct U.S. military response but eventually sparked renewed U.S.-Saudi military cooperation through the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center, which is expected to test new technologies aimed at better integrating air and missile defense systems in the kingdom.

Iran has also reportedly used drones against Israel, in military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Syria and Iraq in 2021, and against ships in the Gulf of Oman. Tehran has supplied drones to nonstate actors, including Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq. By developing and testing a number of new classes of drone on various battlefields in the Middle East, such as the Shahed (allegedly used to strike a tanker off the coast of Oman killing two people in November 2022), Qasef, Samad (propeller-driven missiles), Mohajer, Ababeel, and Kaman (capable of carrying different kinds of munitions), modeled on the U.S.-made MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, Iran aims to drive up drone sales. So far, they have only been sold to a limited number of buyers, such as Venezuela and now Russia, given the far reach of U.S. sanctions and number of alternative suppliers, including Turkey. In May 2022 Iran opened an overseas drone manufacturing base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, probably in response to Israeli operations against its drone program. Iran continues to develop its  kamikaze drones, which are increasingly able to zero in on the emissions of ground or sea-based air defense radars using onboard artificial intelligence.

Amid Saudi coverage – beamed into Iran – of ongoing protests in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps allegedly threatened the kingdom again in November 2022. Given Saudi dependence on desalination plants for water and some of its food security, as well as its oil processing facilities, the kingdom remains vulnerable to such an attack. The ability of drones to linger, go undetected, and attack using new combinations of weaponry and artificial intelligence raises new questions about critical infrastructure protection in periods of peace, tension, and war.

Implications of Strengthening Russian-Iranian Military Ties

Russian arms to Iran, such as helicopters, air defense systems, and Su-35 advanced fighter jets, could further destabilize regional security. First, the coupling of such arms imports with Iranian drone capabilities is bound to be met by alarm in some Gulf Arab capitals, and Israel as well, especially without any transparency or consultation about intentions or use. The lack of an integrated Gulf Cooperation Council air defense system and ongoing vulnerabilities to drone attacks by Iranian proxies exacerbate this issue. Second, there is a dearth of nuclear or other arms agreements to inform or provide any guarantees. This should be a prerequisite when set against a chronic lack of trust and the perception that Iran is pursuing a range of aggressive activities in other domains, such as drone use and exports, nuclear development, and human rights abuses (although leverage in negotiations, not one side’s sense of prerequisites, determines what gets included in negotiations and ultimately agreed to). Third, given the domestic context, Iran is potentially already on a war footing to consolidate control domestically and ensure the survival of the revolutionary regime. Given the ailing nuclear deal, such arms sales add to the perception that Iran is preparing for the JCPOA’s demise, continued resistance against the West, and further confrontation.

One solution to avoid such an escalation could have been found through preemptive diplomacy: the construction of an agreement on aerial security in the Gulf in support of common national security objectives, including a deal focusing on critical infrastructure protection. The advantage of launching negotiations and ultimately implementing this earlier would have been to simultaneously buttress uncertain nuclear negotiations, disincentivize Iran from missile and drone development, and avoid Russian military sales before they reached this advanced stage.  In the absence of such an agreement, and others that would also have contributed to de-escalation, Iran seems intent to forge ahead – one drone, or export deal to Russia, at a time – as it uses escalation and implied escalation to escape the strictures of a renewed nuclear deal and the consequences of that evasion.

Robert Mason  is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project at Lancaster University.