Newly declassified US intelligence indicates that Iran is expected to supply Russia with “hundreds” of drones – including weapons-capable drones – for use in the war in Ukraine, with Iran preparing to begin training Russian forces on how to operate them as early as late July, according to White House officials.
“Information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred (unmanned aerial vehicles), including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House press briefing on Monday.
“Our information further indicates that Iran is preparing to train Russian forces to use these UAVs, with initial training session slated in as soon as early July. It’s unclear whether Iran has delivered any of these UAVs to Russia already,” he continued.
A spokesperson at the White House National Security Council told CNN that the information Sullivan described to reporters was based on recently declassified intelligence.
Sullivan argued that news of Iran supplying the drones is evidence that Russia’s attacks against Ukraine in recent weeks are coming at the “severe” cost of depleting of its own weapons.
News of Iran’s supply of drones to Russia came a day before President Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East since taking office, with stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s actions in the region and its nuclear program are expected to be a major topic of discussion.
Biden remains under increasing pressure from Middle Eastern allies to come up with a viable plan to constrain Iran, as hopes for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal have faded following stalled talks in Doha, Qatar, last month.
Sullivan on Monday brought up how similar drones were provided by Iran to Yemen’s Houthi rebels to attack Saudi Arabia before a ceasefire was put in place earlier this year.
Drones have been a key component of the war in Ukraine on both sides, with the Ukrainian military using Turkish-built Bayraktar UAVs to destroy Russian command posts, tanks and surface-to-air missile systems, and the Russians using homemade Orlan-10 drones for reconnaissance and electronic warfare. But in nearly five months of war, the number of drones on each side has been dwindling as they have been shot down or crashed.
Ukraine’s allies, including Lithuania and Poland, have begun crowdfunding campaigns to purchase new Bayraktar drones for the Ukrainian military, and the US has provided Ukraine with small, kamikaze drones called Switchblades. The US has also been weighing whether to provide Ukraine with larger drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles.
But Russia, the US now believes, has apparently turned to Iran to help replenish its drone stockpiles. It is unclear how sophisticated or effective those drones will be, however.
Russia had previously turned to China for help in supporting its war in Ukraine, US officials disclosed in March. As of late May, the US had seen no evidence that China had provided any military or economic support to Russia for the invasion, Sullivan told reporters at the time.
Iran, however, has sought closer relations with Russia in recent months. In January, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and told him that now was the time for Russia and Iran to confront “the power of the Americans with an increased synergy between our two countries,” according to the New York Times.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.