Report: Iranian officials visit Russia to scout out site for drone-building factory

Wall Street Journal says delegation was in Yelabuga last month to advance plans for facility that could produce 6,000 deadly UAVs

Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 17, 2022. (Roman Hrytsyna/AP)
Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 17, 2022. (Roman Hrytsyna/AP)

Moscow and Tehran are moving forward with plans to build an Iranian-designed factory in Russia that can produce drones, including scouting out a future location — the latest sign of the deepening relationship between the two countries that has alarmed Western nations.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, an Iranian delegation visited Yelabuga in western Russia on January 5, touring a potential site for such a factory. Citing officials from an unnamed US ally, the newspaper said such a facility could produce up to 6,000 Iranian-designed drones in the next few years for Russia to use in its ongoing war against Ukraine.

The Washington Post reported in November that plans for such a factory were in the works, after Iran and Russia finalized a deal that month. The newspaper reported that Russian officials visited Tehran to discuss and sign the final agreement.

Israel, the US, and many other Western countries have sounded the alarm about the deepening cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, as they both face greater global isolation.

Iran and Russia have strengthened ties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Iran supplying attack drones that have dive-bombed infrastructure and other civilian targets across Ukraine. After initially denying that it had armed Russia, in November, Iran acknowledged the drones transfer, while claiming it took place before the war began — an assertion Western powers reject.

Last month, Moscow and Tehran took a key step toward linking their banking systems, boosting their cooperation in the face of Western sanctions.

An undated photograph released by Ukraine shows the wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine. (Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP)

The New York Times reported in December that the US had launched a major effort to stifle Iran’s ability to manufacture and deliver drones for Russia to use in the war in Ukraine.

Citing multiple security officials in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, the paper said the program also aims to give Ukraine the ability to shoot down any “kamikaze” drones that Russia does manage to acquire, as well as to target their launch sites.

The New York Times reported that President Joe Biden’s administration is cooperating closely with Israel on the issue and is building on Jerusalem’s experience thwarting Iranian drone attacks.

Last month, the Biden administration said that Iran’s sale of lethal drones to Russia for use in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine meant the country may be “contributing to widespread war crimes.”

Russia has been slamming the drones into Ukrainian energy infrastructure and other civilian targets.

In a statement last month on new US sanctions against an Iranian drone-maker working with Moscow, Secretary of State Antony Blinken harshly criticized Tehran for its role in the Ukraine war.

“Iran has now become Russia’s top military backer,” Blinken said in a statement. “Iran must cease its support for Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine, and we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to disrupt and delay these transfers and impose costs on actors engaged in this activity.”

AP contributed to this report.

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