Report: Russian drone experts took cover in Tehran hotel during alleged Mossad strike

Leaked documents obtained by Washington Post shed light on January incident at Shahed-136 UAV factory, reveal Iran helping Moscow make progress on advanced drone production

Screen grab from an unverified video circulating on social media said to show fire from an explosion at a defense facility in Iran's Isfahan after an alleged drone strike, January 29, 2023. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Screen grab from an unverified video circulating on social media said to show fire from an explosion at a defense facility in Iran's Isfahan after an alleged drone strike, January 29, 2023. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Russian officials visiting Iran as part of cooperation on attack drone development earlier this year were forced to hunker down in their hotel after an alleged strike by Israel’s Mossad spy agency on a drone manufacturing facility in Tehran, according to a report Thursday.

The Washington Post report, citing documents leaked to it from the program, said the group of visiting managers and engineers were forced to remain in their lodgings after a strike on a reported Shahed-136 production facility in Isfahan, widely attributed to Mossad. Iranian officials were concerned further strikes could next be launched on additional drone facilities in Tehran which the Russians were about to tour, it said.

In the January attack, an Iranian Defense Ministry statement described three drones being launched at the facility, with two of them successfully shot down. A third apparently made it through to strike the building, causing “minor damage” to its roof and wounding no one, the ministry said. London-based opposition Iranian news outlet Iran International cited eyewitnesses as saying that they saw three or four explosions.

The Washington Post report, based on the trove of classified documents, revealed steady Russian progress toward manufacturing its own improved version of the advanced Iranian attack drone for use against Ukraine.

The post said the documents were obtained from a person involved in the work at a special Russian facility aimed at producing 6,000 drones by the summer of 2025, but who opposes the project and believes it has “gone too far.”

“This was the only thing I could do to at least stop and maybe create some obstacles to the implementation of this project,” the unnamed individual was quoted as saying, expressing hope that additional Western sanctions will be subsequently introduced, hindering the joint Russian-Iranian project.

An Iranian Shahed-129 drone is displayed at a rally in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2016. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

In June, the White House released US intelligence findings that Iran was providing Russia with materials to build the drone manufacturing plant in Russia’s Alabuga special economic zone, east of Moscow, saying it could be operational early next year.

US President Joe Biden’s administration publicly stated in December that it believed Tehran and Moscow were considering establishing a drone assembly line in Russia for the Ukraine war.

Thursday’s report revealed detailed information about the project but also some difficulties, saying it was at least a month behind schedule and that Moscow has been struggling to fill all needed positions, lacking experts in “key and highly complex areas of drone development.” It said some employees had had their passports seized to prevent them from quitting.

But all in all, Russia has made and is making progress toward producing drones whose capabilities exceed those of the Shahed-136, according to former UN weapons inspector David Albright.

“Russia has a credible way of building over the next year or so a capability to go from periodically launching tens of imported Shahed-136 kamikaze drones against Ukrainian targets to more regularly attacking with hundreds of them,” he told the Post.

The report said many Alabuga employees have traveled to drone-making facilities in Iran to gain expertise.

Screen grab from an unverified video circulating on social media said to show an explosion at a defense facility in Iran’s Isfahan after an alleged drone strike, January 28, 2023. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The Washington Post said the Russian government, Iran’s UN mission and the Alabuga facility all didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, told the outlet: “As Russia searches for ways to evade our actions, the US government, alongside allies and partners, will continue to ramp up our own efforts to counter such evasion.”

The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom in recent months all have issued rules designed to cut off the flow of drone components to Russia and Iran.

The Biden administration has repeatedly publicized intelligence findings that detail how Iran is assisting the Russian invasion.

Iran has claimed it provided drones to Russia before the start of the war but not since.

The Shahed drones that Russia has already purchased are packed with explosives and programed to loiter overhead until they nosedive into a target — unmanned versions of World War II kamikaze pilots who would fly their explosives-laden planes into US warships in the Pacific.

The White House has said for months that it has seen troubling signs that the military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran could flow both ways, supplying Iran with new advanced military technology as well.

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