Russia is battling Ukraine with the help of deadly Iranian drones, or UAVs, the United States and some of its allies allege, contending that use of the weapons violates a Security Council resolution. But the United Nations itself — called on repeatedly by the US and others to investigate the matter — has not jumped at the request. Meanwhile, Iran is building up its UAV production, undeterred by Western accusations.
“The United States remains gravely concerned with Russia’s use of Iranian drones against Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure in its unprovoked war against Ukraine,” said Robert Wood, a US ambassador, in a July 6 meeting on nonproliferation in the Security Council. “Both Iran and Russia have violated their obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by participating in these transfers without obtaining advance approval from the UN Security Council.”
Wood referred to “public reports” indicating that “Russia used eight Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones to terrorize Kyiv” recently, adding that this instance and others “must be investigated as it clearly constitutes a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, Annex B, Paragraph 4.”
“Specifically, the UN Secretariat should, without any further delay, send a team of investigators to Kyiv to examine the debris from these weapons used by Russia against Ukraine,” Wood added. Referring to the head of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, who was in the chamber, Wood said, in part: “Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo, there should be no higher priority for the Secretariat. A failure to act will only lead to further attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and potentially the loss of civilian lives.”
His remarks followed a June 23 statement from his boss, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and other allies on the Council that Iran is helping Russia to produce its own drones, a cooperation that opponents say violates Resolution 2231. But Iran contends that drone exports are exempt from the UN resolution, and Iran’s envoy has said that a UN investigation lacked a legal basis. Russia concurred, noting on July 6: “Functions of the UN Secretariat as regards this resolution are of a purely administrative and technical nature.”
Adopted eight years ago to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in return for normalizing the country’s economic relations with the world, the resolution lies at the heart of a controversy as Russia’s war rages in Ukraine. Current major disagreements over basic aspects of the resolution could keep the request by the US from progressing.
Along with bringing global attention to Iran’s booming UAV industry, its shipment of drones to Russia is unnerving Western powers as they scramble to contain the threat of the kamikaze weapons. UAVs are deployed by Russian troops in Ukraine with enough frequency to regularly knock out the war-stricken country’s energy infrastructure while devastating everything they hit.
“As of today, more than a thousand launches by the Russian Federation of the Iranian UAVs over the territory of Ukraine have been recorded,” Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s envoy to the UN, said on July 6. He added that “all types of Iranian UAVs that struck or were shot down over the territory of Ukraine as well as their debris were thoroughly disassembled and studied.” According to the results, “Ukrainian investigators and independent international experts identified evidence confirming the Iranian origin of the UAVs used by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.”
The US and some European allies — Albania, Britain, France and Ukraine — have been pushing Secretary-General António Guterres to investigate the drone use in the last few months. He says he doesn’t have the mandate. Thomas-Greenfield disagrees, saying, “We have all encouraged the UN to move forward on carrying out these investigations immediately.”
Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, said in a media briefing on July 10, regarding a possible investigation: “We are continuing to analyse the information received with regard to the alleged transfer of uncrewed aerial vehicles by Iran in a manner that’s consistent with paragraph 4 of Resolution 2231.”
But the UN is resisting & Iran says its drone exports are legal. Is this a dead end? pic.twitter.com/KThd5zJTOa
— PassBlue (@pass_blue) July 10, 2023
Enforcement of Resolution 2231 has been severely weakened since May 2018, when the US, under President Donald Trump, pulled out of the 2015 landmark nuclear deal that is embedded in the resolution, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Efforts to revive it under the Biden administration have been unsuccessful.
Until October 2020, Iran was hampered by a 13-year-old UN-mandated arms embargo that prevented it from upgrading its air fleet, but the embargo expired as part of Resolution 2231. According to the UN, the sanctions regime no longer legally precludes Iran from obtaining or exporting conventional weapons.
Iranian officials acknowledged in November 2022 that small quantities of drones had been delivered to Russia before the war started earlier that year. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Iran of lying.
“We shoot down at least 10 Iranian drones every day, yet the Iranian regime claims that it supplied Russia with only a small number of them, and those before the start of the full-scale invasion,” he said that month.
After the first acknowledgement by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian of Iran last year that drones had been provided to Russia, Tehran has been less reticent about disclosing its military ties with Moscow, and some midranking authorities have openly praised Russia’s appetite for Iranian drones as proof of Iran’s excellent defense technology. (Ukraine also uses combat drones in the war, including ones produced by a Turkish firm, Baykar, which reportedly is building a factory in Ukraine.)
Zelensky accuses Tehran of being complicit in Russian war crimes. In a video message on May 24, he appealed to the Iranian people directly, asking them why they didn’t pressure their government to stop greasing the wheels of Russia’s war machinery: “Why do you want to be accomplices in Russian terror? Why are you on the side of the evil state? The world sees what is happening, and you all in Iran see it. Support for evil cannot be denied.”
“When an Iranian drone kills a pregnant Ukrainian girl and her husband in their home, why do you, mothers and fathers in Iran, need this?” he asked, asserting that at least 1,160 Shahed aviation drones had been fired at Ukraine.
Although some Iranians expressed sympathy, reactions were mostly negative on social media like Twitter, where Iranians criticized Zelensky’s plea as naïve, given that their government doesn’t listen often to its constituents.
Iran inserting itself in the Ukraine war shows how far it will go to burnish its anti-Western credentials and parade its military prowess, analysts say, adding that it is a dangerous gamble that exposes Tehran to further stigmatization on the world stage.
In May, the Ukrainian parliament approved a package of 50-year sanctions on Iran. This followed a proposal by Zelensky to completely ban trade, terminate flights, halt the transportation of resources and block the withdrawal of money by Iranian residents. The latter step is already taking a toll on more than 1,400 Iranian students who were studying in the country before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, and many of them have decided to leave or been expelled by Ukraine.
Besides presumably making money, Iran’s drone deal with Russia could involve a quid pro quo in which Moscow would sell Tehran 24 Su-35 fighter jets and provide other military assistance, including missiles, air defense and surveillance technology, some analysts speculate.
Even before Iran started shipping drones to Russia, its military abilities drew controversy, and the US said drones should be part of any future negotiations that could entail the revival of the nuclear deal. But Iran insists that its development of high-end drones is non-negotiable as a matter vital to its own defense.
Iran spends far less on defense than its rivals in the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While the Saudi military expenditure stands at $75 billion in 2023, Iran forks out $24.6 billion on firepower, and with the array of global sanctions that has drained its resources, its vulnerability to outside threats cannot be overstated, regional experts contend. But they also say that Iran’s drone-manufacturing program is destabilizing, given the aggressive nature of its military policy and its goal to gain footholds across the Middle East and beyond.
“I think the big difference between Iran’s capabilities and the capabilities of UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi is that Iran is exporting advanced capabilities, such as drones, whereas the other countries are largely importers,” Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told PassBlue.
“Military-grade drones have proven their effectiveness on the battlefield; there is significant demand for Iran’s exported products, including from major powers like Russia. As a result, this gives Iran considerable geopolitical leverage,” he said.
Despite the chronic isolation Iran endures, it has found receptive markets for its drones not only in Russia but also in countries like Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela. Militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza, the Iraqi paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels have also been using Iranian drones as weapons and for surveillance and reconnaissance.
It is not clear if Iran funnels the weapons gratis or if it’s being paid. Iranian state media, which often report on the government’s “achievement” in selling discounted oil despite the sanctions, do not reveal whether the recipients of drones are paying for them.
Eric Lob, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University, has studied Iran’s drone program closely. He says profits, power and prestige are all behind Tehran’s resolve to become a leading drone producer and exporter.
“For years, the Islamic Republic has transferred the technology to its quasi- and nonstate partners and proxies in the Middle East like Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen to establish and expand its regional influence and strategic depth against its adversaries, which have been largely under the US security umbrella,” added Lob, who is also a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program.
“Given that military drones and regional proxies are two of the four pillars of the Islamic Republic’s security doctrine, it makes sense that both would complement each other and be used in tandem,” he added.
In May 2022, Iran opened a drone factory in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where it produces the low-cost Ababil-2 model, designed for reconnaissance and combat. Some analysts argue that without the multilayered sanctions that have crippled Iran’s armed forces, its drone enterprise would not have taken off.
After the Iran-Iraq war of 1980, when, according to the former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, Iran’s cities “were showered with missiles” and Iran “went to one country after another begging” for a single Scud missile to defend itself, the government decided to become more self-sufficient in defense and invested in drones disproportionately.
“That’s the irony of the situation,” said Shahram Akbarzadeh, a professor of Middle East and Central Asian politics at Deakin University in Australia.
Yet a lingering question is whether Iran can compete with such regional players as Saudi Arabia and the UAE in becoming military powerhouses. Russia is also reportedly buying civilian drones from China.
The Biden administration says Iran is meanwhile helping Moscow construct its own drone plant, which is expected to go live as early as next year.
“Tehran’s increased security cooperation with Moscow can be seen as a reflection of the growing isolation of both countries from the West, with both governments doubling down on their adversarial stance towards the US and its allies,” said Eugene Chausovsky, the senior director of the Analytical Development Department at New Lines Institute, a Washington think tank.
“From the standpoint of both the Islamic Republic and the Kremlin, the regimes have calculated that the benefits of closer political, economic and military ties with one another as well as with China outweigh the costs in terms of furthering their confrontation with the West,” he added.
As Iran’s military ties to Russia deepen, pressure by the US and some allies to push the UN to launch a probe into the alleged violation of Resolution 2231 has not let up. At the same time, Iran persistently denies any connections between the resolution and the drone saga. Instead, it is demanding that the UN hold the US accountable over its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which Iran says has spurred the current stalemate.
To reconcile the two sides, Guterres would have to perform a complicated balancing act if he steps on the tightrope.
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Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and an Asia Times correspondent. A recipient of the Chevening Scholarship from Britain’s Foreign Office, he is a 2022 World Press Institute fellow with the University of St. Thomas and a Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow with the United Nations. He was recently selected as the silver winner of the Prince Albert II of Monaco and UN Correspondents Association Global Prize for Coverage of Climate Change. He contributes to Foreign Policy, openDemocracy, Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The New Arab and Al-Monitor. His Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KZiabari