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Iran seeks ‘billions’ worth of Russian aircraft and weapons in exchange for drones, U.S. says

Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.  (Kevin Dietsch)
By Joby Warrick Washington Post

Iran is seeking to acquire large numbers of Russian attack helicopters, war planes and air-defense systems in repayment for its support of Russia’s war against Ukraine, U.S. officials say. The White House warned that these weapons could substantially increase Tehran’s ability to threaten its neighbors or repel future attacks.

The combat aircraft are part of an Iranian wish list that includes billions of dollars of Russian military hardware, an infusion of aid that, if delivered, could further destabilize a Middle East that already appears to be inching closer to armed conflict.

Details of Iran’s request were released by the Biden administration on Friday as part of an intelligence assessment describing deepening military ties between Moscow and Tehran. The assessment confirms previous reports about plans by the two countries to build a production facility for Iranian-designed attack drones inside Russia, giving Moscow greater domestic capacity to produce unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for use in airstrikes against Ukrainian cities.

“This is a full-scale defense partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbors and to the international community,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The White House has repeatedly criticized Iran for supplying self-detonating attack drones for Russia’s long-running assault on Ukrainian cities and civilian centers. Kirby confirmed that Russia is “receiving materials from Iran needed to build a UAV manufacturing plant” inside Russia. The White House released images of a facility in the Alabuga Special Economic Zone, in Russia’s Tatarstan republic, which U.S. officials said is a planned manufacturing center for Iranian drones.

“This plant could be fully operational next year,” Kirby said.

The White House also released a map depicting what officials said was the supply route for Iranian UAVs heading toward Russian launch sites to the north and east of Ukraine. According to the map, drones are shipped from northern Iran across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Makhachkala, and then overland to a pair of Russian military bases near the Ukrainian frontier.

The Washington Post reported in November that Iran had reached a deal to help Russia manufacture its drones domestically.

Since the delivery of the first Iranian drones last summer, a key unknown is how Iran was being compensated. U.S. analysts have long suspected that, in additional to financial payments, Moscow would reward its Iranian ally with technological or military aid. Iran announced earlier this year that it had finalized a deal to purchase the Russian-made SU-35, a highly maneuverable, multi-role fighter jet.

The new assessment shed further light on Iran’s asks. Among the equipment sought were additional combat and trainer aircraft, as well as attack helicopters, air-defense systems, military radars and militarily-sensitive electronics, equipment totaling in the “billions of dollars,” Kirby said. The assessment did not reveal which systems Russia had agreed to deliver, or were perhaps already in the pipeline.

Such advanced weapons, if provided, could greatly augment Iran’s military capability across an array of potential battlefields, from the Syrian-Israeli border to western Afghanistan and the Gulf. The weapons systems could also present new challenges to U.S. and Israeli military commanders in the event of a future attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“Iran is now calling for Russia to repay Tehran for its help with the Ukraine war,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a National Security Council adviser to the Trump administration and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. He said the deepening Iran-Russia ties would strengthen Tehran’s position in the Middle East and pose a “direct threat to the United States and Israel.”

The Biden administration has imposed sanctions against several Russian and Iranian entities connected to the shipment of drones to Russia. On Friday, the White House issued new guidance for businesses and foreign governments in an effort to halt illicit trafficking in components used in making drones.