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Analysis

Iranian drones in Russian hands show there’s already one victor in Ukraine war: Iran

Tehran’s involvement in the conflict raises its profile, helps its weapons industry and boosts its influence in Syria, all advancing its main goal of undermining US, Western powers

Aaron Pilkington

Aaron Pilkington

Illustrative: In this photo released by the Iranian Army on August 25, 2022, a drone is launched in a military drone drill in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)
Illustrative: In this photo released by the Iranian Army on August 25, 2022, a drone is launched in a military drone drill in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

THE CONVERSATION via AP — The war in Ukraine is helping one country achieve its foreign policy and national security objectives, but it’s neither Russia nor Ukraine.

It’s Iran.

That was starkly clear on the morning of October 17, as Iranian-made drones attacked civilian targets in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Russia used the Iranian drones to inflict damage on Ukraine’s national energy company headquarters and also killed four civilians.

Iran is among Russia’s most vocal supporters in the war. As a military analyst who specializes in Iranian national security strategy, I see this having little to do with Ukraine and everything to do with Iran’s long-term strategy vis-à-vis the United States.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine passed six months and continued eroding Russia’s manpower, military stores, economy and diplomatic connections, leader Vladimir Putin opted for an unlikely but necessary Iranian lifeline in Ukraine and also in Syria where, since 2015, Russian soldiers have been fighting to keep Bashar al-Assad’s government in power.

And at a time when the Islamic Republic of Iran’s government is facing growing citizen protests against its autocratic rule, Putin’s move has, in turn, helped Iran make progress in promoting its national interests, as defined by its leadership.

Opposing the US everywhere

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s leaders have believed the United States is constantly scheming to topple Iran’s government. They view leaders in Washington as the greatest threat and obstacle to promoting Iranian national interests – achieving economic self-sufficiency, international legitimacy, regional security, power and influence.

The fears of Iran’s leaders are not completely irrational – the long history of the US meddling in Iranian affairs, continuous open hostility between the two countries and decades of US military buildup in close proximity to Iran greatly concern leaders in Tehran.

The US has military forces in many Middle Eastern countries, with or without invitation. To promote its national interests, Iran is working to force the US military out of the region and reduce US political influence there.

Iran has an even bigger aim: to overthrow what it sees as the US-dominated global political order.

Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the capital Tehran, on September 22, 2018. (Stringer/AFP)

Iran counters US influence by maintaining partnerships with an assortment of nonstate militias and governments united by their fierce anti-US hostility. Tehran nurtures a network of militant partner and proxy groups, whose own political preferences and ambitions align with Iran’s objectives, by providing weapons, training, funds – and, in some cases, direction. Among the recipients are the terror groups Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, friendly Iraqi militias and Ansar Allah in Yemen, better known as the Houthis or the Houthi rebels.

Through these militias and their political arms, Iran extends its influence and works to shape an Iran-friendly government in states like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It threatens US forces and antagonizes Western-allied governments in states such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

At the national level, Iran maintains no permanent mutual defense treaties. Its closest strategic partners include Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, China and Russia. They cooperate politically, economically and militarily to create an alternative to what their leaders perceive as the US-led world political order.

That cooperation includes undermining US national interests and helping ease or circumvent Western political pressure and economic sanctions.

A drone flies over Kyiv during an attack on October 17, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Tehran to the rescue

Russia’s war in Ukraine has left Moscow with only a handful of sympathetic friends.

Few political leaders understand Putin’s newfound political isolation and related animosity toward the US more than Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Iran-Russia relations are complicated.

The two countries found common cause in helping Syrian strongman Assad defeat his country’s opposition forces, but for different national interests.

Saving Assad helps Russia reassert itself as a major power in the Middle East. For Iran, a friendly Syria is a critical link in Iran’s anti-US, anti-Israel coalition.

As Russia and Iran fought to sustain Assad, they also competed for lucrative postwar reconstruction and infrastructure contracts in Syria, and to shape the post-civil war political environment to their advantage.

But neither country was bold enough to influence the way the other operated in Syria. Consequently, sometimes Iranian-backed and Russian forces cooperated, and at other times they squabbled. Mostly they left each other alone.

Russian troops in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in Syria’s southern province of Daraa, on September 1, 2021. (Sam HARIRI / AFP)

Ultimately, though, Russia’s plight in Ukraine compelled Putin to solicit Iran’s help in two ways.

First, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, provided supplementary manpower to fill the void left when Russia reallocated troops from Syria to its Ukraine campaign.

Second, Russia has used Iran’s low-cost and battle-proven drones to counter Kyiv’s Western-supported arsenal and buttress its own struggling forces and surprisingly inept warfighting capabilities.

In July, Iran hosted numerous Russian officers and conducted training on Iranian Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 drone operations. As of early August 2022, anonymous intelligence sources and Ukrainian officials indicated that Russia had obtained and used Iranian drones in Ukraine. Reports this week said Iran has sent its own military personnel to Russian-occupied Crimea to help the Kremlin’s troops deploy the drones against Ukraine.

Since acquiring Iranian drones in early September, Russia has launched over 100 Iranian Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6 attack and reconnaissance drones in over a dozen attacks against a large range of targets: Ukrainian special forces, armor and artillery units, air defense and fuel storage facilities, Ukrainian military and energy infrastructure, civilian targets and a recent series of drone and missile attacks against Kyiv.

Russia is expected to soon rely on Iran further to supplant its dwindling weapons supplies by acquiring two types of Iranian-made short-range ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine, according to US and allied security officials.

This undated photograph released by the Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate shows the wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine. Ukraine’s military claimed on Sept. 13, 2022, for the first time that it encountered an Iranian-supplied suicide drone used by Russia on the battlefield. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP, File)

Ukraine war promotes Iran’s interests

This warming alliance may not help Russia defeat Ukraine. It will promote Iran’s national interests.

Russia’s Syria drawdown brought additional Iranian soldiers there to further prove their fighting abilities and entrench themselves in Syria. That then allows Iran to control territory threatened by anti-Assad forces and maintain an open corridor or “land bridge” by which Iran extends support to its network of anti-America and anti-Israel partners and proxies.

Russia’s acquisition of Iranian arms will significantly boost Iran’s weapons industry, whose primary clientele right now is its own militias. Iran’s recent efforts to expand drone manufacturing and exports yielded limited success in small, mostly peripheral markets of Ethiopia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Venezuela.

Moscow is the second-largest global arms exporter, and its surprising transformation to Iranian arms importer signals the seriousness of Russia’s problems. It also legitimizes and expands Tehran’s weapons industry beyond arms production for the purpose of self-sufficiency. This one alliance moves Iran toward a more prominent role as a major arms exporter.

Lastly, Russia’s war in Ukraine extends a new avenue by which Iran might directly counter US-provided weapons, as well as the opportunity to undermine US and NATO influence in Eurasia. Iran’s drones could afford Moscow an effective and desperately needed response to the US weapons wreaking havoc against Russian forces in Ukraine.

Iranian weapons may force Ukraine’s Western benefactors to allocate additional billions for counter-drone or air defense systems, or aid to replace assets that Iranian weapons potentially neutralize.

People react as a drone fires on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Zero-sum game

The introduction of Iranian ballistic missiles to Ukraine would compound the limited tactical victories scored by Iranian drones. They will bring further unnecessary suffering and prolong and further destabilize the war in Ukraine, but I don’t believe they will tip the scales of conflict in Russia’s favor.

Their greater contribution is to Iran’s national interests: They allow Iran to directly check and undermine the US and NATO outside of Iran’s usual regional area of operations. They boost Iran’s profile among countries that also wish to challenge the United States and NATO’s political, military and economic power. And they strengthen solidarity among those countries.

As Iran’s fighters, advisers and weapons proliferate to new areas and empower US adversaries, Iran further promotes its national interests at the expense of US national interests.

Author Aaron Pilkington is a US Air Force analyst of Middle East affairs. He conducts research on Iranian defense strategy and is a PhD student at the University of Denver.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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