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Ahead of Mideast summit, US warns Iran is seeking to sell attack drones to Russia

Delegation from Moscow twice toured Iran base to view showcase of weapons-capable UAVs, Jake Sullivan says, revealing satellite photos of drones in flight during Russian visit

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Satellite images of a Russian delegation visiting a showcasing of Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones at Iran's Kashan Airfield released by the White House on July 16, 2022. (White House)
Satellite images of a Russian delegation visiting a showcasing of Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones at Iran's Kashan Airfield released by the White House on July 16, 2022. (White House)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Iran is preparing to sell Russia hundreds of attack drones, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan revealed Saturday while US President Joe Biden was in Saudi Arabia for a Mideast summit where leaders were looking to collaborate against the Islamic Republic.

“We have information indicating that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs,” Sullivan said in a statement, with the White House assessing that Russian delegations twice visited Iran’s Kashan Airfield on June 8 and July 5 to view showcases of the drone technology.

The White House also released three photos of the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying precision-guided missiles. The satellite photos also show the drones in flight while a Russian transport was at the site.

Ukraine has made extensive use of armed drones in its fight against the invading Russians, who have not made acquiring such capabilities a priority until now.

The US intelligence assessment was first reported by CNN, prompting Iran to deny it.

On Friday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, in a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, rejected reports on exporting Iranian drones to Russia, calling them “baseless.”

“These sort of claims parallel with Biden’s visit to occupied Palestine, or Israel, are in direction of political intentions and purposes,” the website of Iran’s Foreign Ministry quoted Amirabdollahian as saying. “We oppose any move that could lead to continuation and intensifying conflicts.”

The US and Israel have previously accused the Islamic Republic of using drones and missiles to attack US forces and Israel-linked ships in the Gulf.

In September last year, Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed the location of the Kashan air base and said it was being used to train Tehran’s regional proxies to operate advanced drones.

According to Gantz, the UAV base is located north of the city of Isfahan in central Iran and serves as “a linchpin of the Iranian effort to export aerial terror to the region.”

Illustrative: Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, left, and Commander of the Army Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi visit an underground drone base tunnel of the Army in the heart of the country’s western Zagros Mountains, Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)

A Shahed-129 drone was launched from Lebanon by technicians from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in October 2012, and managed to transmit photos of preparations for a joint Israeli-US military drill as well as Israeli ballistic missile sites, airfields and even possibly the nuclear reactor in Dimona before it was shot down by the IDF, according to a Sunday Times report.

Israeli reports at the time disputed the revelation, saying the then-new long-range drone was relatively old-fashioned and incapable of relaying surveillance information back to its operators in real-time.

The White House issued the statement from Sullivan hours before Biden was set to join the leaders of nine Middle East countries at an expanded summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council known as the GCC+3, which will bring together the leaders of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE along with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

On the agenda for the summit is expanding their coordination against Iranian military threats, which have become a priority for many of the coalition of countries, particularly the Saudi hosts.

Biden met with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on Friday evening and insisted afterward that the US has no intention to withdraw from the region, even after its troops have done so physically from Afghanistan. “We are not going to leave a vacuum for China and Russia to fill,” he said, in a message aimed at assuring regional partners who have begun to look elsewhere for military and economic support.

US President Joe Biden (3-L) takes part in a working session with the Saudi crown prince (not pictured) at the Al-Salam Royal Palace in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, on July 15, 2022. US President Joe Biden landed in Saudi Arabia, sealing a retreat from his campaign pledge to turn the kingdom into a ‘pariah’ over its human rights record. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

A senior administration official briefing reporters from the Jeddah summit expanded on the president’s remarks Saturday, saying the US would also not allow Iran to fill vacuums in the region either.

The revelation from the White House came a day after Iranian state TV announced that the country’s navy had unveiled its first division of ships and submarines capable of carrying armed drones.

“All types of the latest advanced drones produced by the military and the defense ministry have flown over the Indian Ocean’s waters to demonstrate their capabilities,” state TV said, showing images of drones taking off from a naval vessel.

“As we are aware of the aggressive attitude in the [US] system of domination, it is necessary to increase our defensive capabilities day by day,” Iranian army commander Abdolrahim Mousavi said. “If the enemies make a mistake, [these drones] will present them with a regrettable response.”

The announcement came after Biden made his first presidential visit to Israel, where he and Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Thursday signed a security pact reinforcing their common front against Iran.

Biden’s trip also included a presentation of Israel’s “Iron Beam” air defense system, which uses lasers to intercept drones and missiles.

Iran’s foreign ministry said last week that a reported air defense pact brewing between Israel and Arab regional allies — formed under US leadership to counter the threat of Iran’s drones and missiles — would only increase regional tensions.

While Washington has intensified its rhetoric and sanctions against Iran in recent weeks, it continues to say that it is prepared to jointly return, along with Iran, to compliance with the multilateral nuclear deal that the Islamic Republic began violating after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018.

Biden has sought to return to the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and world powers have been convening for over a year in order to revive the deal that traded curbs on Iran’s nuclear program for sanctions relief. But recent months have seen prospects for an agreement diminish, with the White House bucking a key Iranian demand to delist the IRGC.

AP contributed to this report

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