Opinion | Iran helping Russia with drones and sanction evasion is bad news

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Beware of the emerging Tehran-Moscow alliance: Russia has begun using Iranian-made drones in the Ukraine war and Iran has offered to share its financial networks to help Russia evade sanctions, according to Western intelligence officials.

For Russia, struggling to maintain momentum in Ukraine after six months of brutal conflict, the new Iranian assistance could be a game-changer, the intelligence officials warned. “This is not just a tactical alliance,” explained one official. With China and India refusing to sell weapons to Russia, Iran could become an essential pipeline for weapons and money.

“They know all the tricks in the book,” in terms of evading sanctions, the intelligence official said of Iran. Iran can tap its existing infrastructure network of shell companies and other financial institutions in this sanctions-busting campaign. Iranian financial aid for Russia would be even easier if sanctions against Tehran are lifted as part of a renewal of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the intelligence officials warned.

To bolster Russia’s depleted weapons inventory, Iran has begun delivering “hundreds” of suicide drones, according to intelligence officials. These drones would probably be part of the “Shahed” series, about the size of a US Predator, which Iran has used successfully in Iraq and Syria.

US-Iran tensions have been escalating sharply, even as the two countries appear to be nearing a deal to revive the nuclear agreement. Iranian-backed proxies staged a complex drone strike Aug. 15 on a US base in al-Tanf, in southern Syria. No Americans were killed or wounded. But it was a bold attack, and the US Central Command announced Tuesday that the United States had retaliated with “precision airstrikes” on a base near Deir-ez-Zor used by groups associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“We are going to protect our people and strike those responsible, including the IRGC, if they keep this up,” a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The Biden administration has been warning for more than a month about the danger that Iran would supply drones to Russia. National security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on July 15 that Iran was “preparing to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs,” and that a Russian delegation had examined a “showcase” of drones at an Iranian airfield. Iran promptly assured Ukraine’s foreign minister that the US reports were false.

The Russians have, in fact, been rushing to put the Iranian drones over the battlefield. “During the last several weeks, Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement for UAV transfers,” an NSC spokeswoman told me Wednesday. She also noted that Russia this month had launched an Iranian “Khayyam” satellite, which has “significant spying capabilities.”

To expand Russian-Iranian economic ties — and build a framework for evading sanctions — Russia has sent executives from Gazprom and other companies to Tehran, according to an article Tuesday in Politico. Iranian economic officials have also visited Moscow. “Under what traders call a ‘swap’ arrangement, Iran could import Russian crude to its northern Caspian coast and then sell equivalent amounts of crude on Russia’s behalf in Iranian tankers leaving from the Persian Gulf,” Politico noted.

The budding Moscow-Tehran alliance adds a new obstacle to renewing the 2015 nuclear agreement. US officials remain convinced that its limits on Iranian enrichment of uranium would bolster the security of both the United States and Israel. But Tehran has demanded concessions, outside the framework of the agreement, that the Biden administration has so far refused to make.

The most important Iranian demand is that the United States press the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to halt its investigation of undeclared nuclear sites. “No deal will be implemented before the IAEA Board of Governors PERMANENTLY closes the false accusations file,” a spokesperson for the Iranian negotiating team tweeted Tuesday.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi had said the day before that his agency would not halt the probe unless Iran cooperated. “Give us the necessary answers, people and places so we can clarify the many things needed for clarification,” Grossi said.

The US apparently isn’t willing to budge on the IAEA investigation issue. “We have communicated to Iran, both publicly and privately, that it must answer the IAEA questions. … Our position on that is not going to change,” White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby said Wednesday.

Iran’s other two demands also appear to be nonstarters. Tehran had asked Washington to remove the IRGC from its list of terrorist groups, but the Biden administration flatly refused. And the Iranians want assurance that a subsequent US administration would not withdraw from the deal, as President Donald Trump did. Biden obviously can’t commit a subsequent president, and Congress wouldn’t pass such a pledge.

Russia’s drone deal with Iran is a sign of how serious Moscow’s weapons-supply problems have become after six months of war in Ukraine. Intelligence officials say that Moscow was initially hesitant to reach out to Tehran, whose leaders it mistrusts and whose nuclear ambitions it has consistently opposed. Russia likes to think that it’s a superpower that doesn’t need help from a troublesome neighbor.

“It shows a lot of desperation on the part of the Russians that they are dependent on the Iranians here,” the senior administration official said.

Right now, struggling to match the flow of weapons from the United States and its NATO allies into Ukraine, Russia can’t afford to be so picky. That serves a short-term need. But it puts Russia in an even more isolated and dangerous place.

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