The Pentagon issued a rare public warning to Iran on Wednesday against a potential transfer of hundreds of unmanned drones to Russia for use in the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.
“We would advise Iran not to do that,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters at the Pentagon today. “We think it’s a really, really bad idea. And I’ll leave it at that.”
The context: The Iranian government has aimed to provide Moscow with hundreds of armed drones for use in Ukraine “on an expedited timeline,” the White House revealed last week.
Russian delegations have twice visited Kashan Airfield south of Tehran over the past month to view Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones, both of which can be outfitted with precision-guided missiles, CNN reported.
US officials say Moscow has used up much of its precision-guided missile stockpile since its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which has bogged down amid intense Ukrainian resistance and flows of heavy weapons from US and its Western allies.
Ukraine has effectively deployed its own drones as well as US and Turkish-supplied UAVs to disrupt Russian convoys, helping to thwart the Kremlin’s assault towards Kyiv and forcing Moscow to redirect its war effort to the country’s eastern Donbas region.
Speaking alongside Austin at the Pentagon today, top US general Mark Milley described the fight in eastern Ukraine as “a grinding war of attrition” based largely on long-range artillery fire, adding that US defense analysts do not expect a breakout by either side in the near future.
American officials say Ukraine has been successfully targeting Russian command headquarters in the Donbas using US-supplied HIMARS artillery systems. “The Ukrainians are making the Russians pay for every kilometer of ground gained,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley said today.
To date, US officials say Russia’s forces have not destroyed any of Ukraine’s 12 HIMARS systems. The Pentagon announced today that Washington will be sending Ukraine four additional such artillery systems in the coming weeks.
Tipping the scales? Iran is believed to possess the largest and most sophisticated arsenal of drones and precision-guided missiles in the Middle East, besides Israel. Interest from Russia is an ironic turn of fate as the two countries explore greater strategic ties under US sanctions pressure.
Neither Austin nor Milley specified what steps the US might take if Iran does transfer the drones to Russia, though the Pentagon typically has a variety of options, both overt and covert, for White House officials to choose from. Any such response would be a matter for US policymakers, Milley suggested today.
Know more: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei yesterday praised Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine as a way of pushing back on NATO, though the Iranian leader said that he regrets loss of innocent life. Read Al-Monitor’s coverage of the recent Astana summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Tehran.