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US defense intelligence confirms Iran’s drone use in Ukraine

The Pentagon report comes a day after the UK government turned over weapons and other evidence to the United Nations that Iran had attempted to ship to Yemen's Houthi rebels in violation of international law.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) drill held by the Iranian army in Semnan, Iran, on Jan. 5, 2021.

WASHINGTON – The US Defense Intelligence Agency on Tuesday released an unclassified report providing visual comparisons of the drones Russia has deployed in Ukraine with Iranian-made drones in the Middle East.

The seven-page document relies on public open-source imagery and serves to reinforce what US officials have been saying for months: that many of Russia’s drones in its war in Ukraine are in fact Iranian-made.

The report includes detailed side-by-side views of Shahed-136s, Shahed-131s and Mohajer-6 drones, all of which have been documented in the war in Ukraine.

Why it matters: The DIA’s report reveals little if anything new, but it comes just a day after the UK government for the first time presented evidence to the United Nations of Iran’s arms transfers to Yemen in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 2231 and 2140.

UK officials turned over Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles and engines for land-attack cruise missiles, as well as a quadcopter reconnaissance drone that UK defense officials said they had traced to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Aerospace Force headquarters and a testing facility in western Tehran.

The quadcopter was seized in the same shipment as a number of the surface-to-air and cruise missiles by the HMS Montrose in the Gulf of Oman last year, the UK Defense Ministry said in a press release.

“This evidence indicated a direct link between the Iranian state and the smuggling of missile systems being used by the Houthis to attack the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” the statement read.

“The threat posed by long-range weapons made in Iran is not limited to the Middle East. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Iran has supplied hundreds of Shahed one-way attack drones to Russia,” it continued.

“These attacks have killed civilians and damaged critical national infrastructure (such as power substations) far from the front lines of the conflict.”

What’s next: The Biden administration has been turning to allies to help build the case at the UN to expose Iran’s weapons proliferation.

In mid-January, French naval forces seized a cache of some 3,000 assault rifles and more than half a million rounds of ammunition, as well as 23 guided anti-tank missiles, aboard a boat that officials said had originated in Iran and was bound for Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

White House and Pentagon officials have raised the alarm that Iran’s emerging defense partnership with Russia due to the war in Ukraine is likely to enhance Tehran’s offensive drone capabilities against its own neighbors.

“The Iranians are getting great practice on their lethal equipment in Ukraine that will only come back to make threats in the Middle East more acute,” a senior US defense official told reporters last week.

Another senior US military official who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity on Tuesday said the sheer size of Iran’s drone arsenal ranks among American commanders’ top concerns in the region.

“We’ve seen attacks with multiple UAVs – swarming attacks by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia, for example."

“If you went into some sort of major combat operation, the volume of those drones … would be concerning, and you’d have to defend against it,” the official said, adding, “We try to layer the defenses.”

Both officials requested anonymity to speak more freely on internal Pentagon assessments.

Know more: Stitching together air defense networks in the Middle East has long been sought by successive US presidential administrations but has taken on new urgency amid Iran's continued threats and as the Biden administration has reduced the American military’s footprint in the region to a two-decade low.

In meetings in Riyadh on Monday, US military officials led by the department’s top Middle East policy official Dana Stroul discussed ways to enhance air defense data-sharing with senior military brass from all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The potential for Russian technological support to advance Tehran’s drone program also topped the agenda, officials said.

“The more that Russia imports these drones or gets the ability to build them themselves, the more likely it is that Russian technology gets applied to it and then shared back to Iran,” the second senior military official noted.

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