U.S. Targets Putin's 'Desperate' Use of Iran's Drones

The United States has sanctioned multiple Iranian drone producers for aiding the Russian military, warning other nations not to support or develop any equipment that benefits Ukraine's "desperate" enemy.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against three Iranian companies and one individual involved in the development and production of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Brian E. Nelson, undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a press release that the U.S. "will not hesitate" to target UAV producers that contribute to Middle Eastern terrorist proxies and regional destabilization.

"Russia is making increasingly desperate choices to continue its unprovoked war against Ukraine, particularly in the face of our unprecedented sanctions and export controls," Nelson said. "The United States is committed to strictly enforcing our sanctions against both Russia and Iran and holding accountable Iran and those supporting Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine."

In late August, the Pentagon confirmed Iran's shipment of drones to Russia, with military experts expressing caution as to their viability due to required training and their unknown accuracy in shooting moving targets, such as U.S.-supplied High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

Russia Iran Drones UAVs Putin
Iran's shipment of drones to use against Ukrainian forces is part of a blossoming relationship between both heavily-sanctioned countries, experts say. Above, Russia servicemen display devises combating drones at the Army-2022 International Military-Technical Forum at the Russian Armed Forces' Patriot Park in Kubinka, outside Moscow, on August 16, 2022. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Included in Thursday's sanctions are the Shahed series of drones, for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Aerospace Force and Navy. It was reported in August that Iran showcased two models of drones—Shahed-129 and Shahed-191—to Russia in June.

The Shahed-129 is said to travel farther and carry heavier loads than the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2 drone provided to Ukrainian forces. However, the Bayrakter drones are reportedly faster and able to travel for a greater amount of time.

Ukrainian military officials have questioned the quality of the Iranian-made drones. Yuriy Ignat, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force, said previous sanctions imposed on Iran may impact product quality.

Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, told Newsweek on Friday that he "very much" doubts the effectiveness of these newly announced sanctions.

"This is the basic reality: The U.S. has put over a thousand sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities" from Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei down to defense-related producers, Vatanka said. "There isn't much the U.S. can sanction to make a difference to the overall approach of Iran. Drones are classified as Iran misbehaving or not respecting U.S. sanctions on Russia."

Meanwhile, he said Russia is "playing a whole different game" than Iran due to targeting European countries with energy-related threats, for example. Russia is overtaking the nation as the "most sanctioned in the history of man."

"Russia and Iran Have Moved Closer"

The burgeoning relationship between Iran and Russia has strengthened since Russia first invaded Ukraine in February.

"This is a relationship that for sure has been developing over the last few years, gradually becoming more intimate if you will," Vatanka said. "I think there's clearly a trend here where Russia has fallen out with the West; Russia and Iran have moved closer."

He initially called the delivery of Iranian drones "somewhat of a surprise" due to the assumption many had that Russia did not require such weapons after just six months of combat. Though, he did acknowledge Iran's "indigenous drone industry" that is void of traditional air force programs resulting from sanctions and a lack of money.

"What has resulted from this [Iran-Russia] relationship picking up speed are the sanctions on the Russians and finding ways to counter the sanctions—counter the sanctions the West is trying to impose on them. Iran is a place they can go."

Samuel Bendett, a Russia analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Newsweek that Iran's drone industry is "homegrown."

He called Iran "a very interesting case study for Russia" due to its ability to be under decades of U.S. surveillance yet able to bypass "massive sanctions" by utilizing third parties when necessary.

"Iran has been under U.S. sanctions for many decades and still developed its own domestic military industry, which is exemplified by a massive drone lineup that could be quite useful in modern war...Russia respects Iran for its ability to maintain defense and foreign policy and accomplish goals," Bendett said.

Vatanka warned about the financial dealings between both countries, however, saying the partnership is likely "perfect for a barter kind of deal."

He referred to the newest sanctions against Iranian drone producers as a "significant signal" to Iran or other nations like Turkey, Venezuela, or even China that may hypothetically consider selling arms to Russia.

"The sanctions are part of a broader set of tools and pressures the U.S. will put on countries to deter (such behavior), he said. "If we are entering Cold War 2.0—if this is gonna last decades, then Iran and Russia might actually be in a relationship that will consolidate, that will deepen, and have the United States as its target."