Iranian drone sales to Russia underline worries for nuke deal critics

Lifting sanctions on Tehran will allow Moscow to use Islamic Republic as back door for money and weapons to aid war effort against Ukraine, opponents of nuclear deal fear

Illustrative: Iranian 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, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)
Illustrative: Iranian 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, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia has obtained hundreds of Iranian drones capable of being used in its war against Ukraine, despite US warnings to Tehran not to ship them, according to Western intelligence officials.

It’s unclear whether Russia has begun flying the drones against Ukrainian targets, but the drones appear to be operational and ready to use, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

The reported shipment marks the latest sign of what appears to be closer military cooperation between the longtime allies.

It also underscores warnings from critics of the ongoing negotiations for Iran to resume its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal that the United States left in 2018. An agreement for Iran and the US to return to the deal, which would grant Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program, is inching forward.

Opponents of a deal say lifting sanctions on Tehran could enable Russia to strengthen its war effort in Ukraine and circumvent penalties imposed after the February invasion by funneling oil and other products through Iran.

The arrival of the drones in the Ukraine war was first reported by The Washington Post.

Destroyed houses after a Russian attack are seen in the village Chaplyne, Ukraine, August 25, 2022. (AP/Inna Varenytsia)

Ukraine has made great use of drones for surveilling and attacking Russian targets in the six-month war, relying on technology supplied by the US and other partners, including Turkey.

An explosive device carried by a drone last month struck the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean Peninsula, injuring several people. Supporters of Ukraine have also raised money to buy drones for the war effort.

Facing economic sanctions and limits on its supply chains due to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has increasingly turned to Iran as a key partner and supplier of weapons. The White House first publicly warned last month that Iran was planning to supply Moscow with “hundreds” of armed drones. Days later, it alleged that Russian officials had visited Iran twice to arrange a transfer.

Speaking last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian said Tehran had “various types of collaboration with Russia, including in the defense sector.”

“But we won’t help either of the sides involved in this war because we believe that it [the war] needs to be stopped,” he said.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The signs of increased cooperation between Moscow and Tehran have added to concerns about the nuclear talks. President Joe Biden’s administration this week responded to Iran’s latest offer to resume compliance with the previous agreement.

There is now expected to be another exchange of technical details followed by a meeting of the joint commission that oversees the deal. The developments, including stepped-up public messaging campaigns by both Tehran and Washington, as well as Israel, which is opposed to a deal, suggest that an agreement could be near.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks about Iran at a security briefing for the foreign press at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Aug. 24, 2022. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Israeli officials continue to have broad concerns about reviving a deal they had vehemently opposed in 2015, but are also wary of language included in the proposed European text that covers additional items, according to diplomats familiar with Israel’s position.

Israel has made its stance clear in public statements this week by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and in private conversations in Washington involving Israel’s national security adviser and its Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who will meet Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Friday.

Israeli officials worry a return to the deal will boost Iran’s cooperation with Russia, including potentially allowing Moscow to evade Ukraine-related sanctions by exporting energy through Iran if the sanctions are eased, said the diplomats, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

They said Israel is concerned about provisions related to the expiration of restrictions on Iran’s atomic program that will remain the same as in the initial agreement. That means what had been a 10-year or 15-year ban on certain activities would now be only a 3-year or 8-year ban.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Reza Najafi, left, and Iranian AEOI spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi, seen leaving the Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks took place in Vienna, Austria, August 5, 2022. (AP/Florian Schroetter)

Among other concerns:

  • Iran’s “breakout time” — the period it would need to produce a nuclear weapon — has been reduced from one year to six months.
  • An Iranian demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency close its investigation of alleged safeguard violations. Israel and other skeptics of the deal worry the IAEA may be pressured to drop the inquiry even if Iran continues to stonewall its inspectors. Europe is eager for a deal, given it would mean renewed access to Iranian oil that could replace the loss of Russian energy imports severely curtailed by war-related sanctions. American officials have assured Israel that the US will not pressure the agency’s chief, Rafael Grossi, to end the matter before Iran has answered the outstanding questions. The US and others pressed Grossi’s predecessor to drop an investigation into Iran’s previous nuclear work after the original deal was agreed to in 2015.
  • Iran’s demand for guarantees that the US would not reimpose sanctions for at least five years if a future administration pulled out of the deal, provided Iran remained in compliance. Diplomats say Iran has signaled a willingness to reduce that period to 2 1/2 years, but there are questions about whether the Biden administration could make a promise that would bind a future president or Congress.
  • The potential for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to earn money from international contracts even if that group isn’t removed from the US list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” It operates a massive number of companies under US sanctions that can also penalize foreign businesses from entering contracts with them. Iran is seeking the removal of a requirement that forces companies to ensure any investments they make in Iran are not with entities controlled by the Revolutionary Guards.

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