In recent weeks the Pentagon has confirmed that Russia is now in possession of Iranian-made combat drones, yet another sign of deepening ties between the two countries. U.S. officials warn that Russia is likely to deploy weapons-capable Iranian drones on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Responding to reports that Iran was preparing to supply Russia with several hundred drones, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Putin’s attempt to strengthen ties with Iran represents a “profound threat.”
Although Iran’s first drone shipment to Russia has so far proven to be unreliable, further installments could help augment Russia’s depleting arsenal. Russia has lost dozens of reconnaissance drones since invading Ukraine and is now running low on precision-guided weapons and missiles.
The United States began supplying Ukraine with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in June which it can use to launch multiple precision rockets at Russian military targets from roughly 50 miles away.
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Yet despite Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comments on Monday that given Iran’s latest response the prospect of a new nuclear deal with Iran happening in the short-term seemed unlikely, Moscow and Tehran’s relationship continues.
Russia has been trying to strike a weapons deal with Iran since October 2020 when United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 imposing an arms embargo on Iran expired. It is unclear whether Russian officials would have accelerated their outreach to Iran had it not been for the indirect war it is fighting against the U.S. and the West in Ukraine.
“The deepening of the relationship between Russia and Iran is at least in part, an unintended consequence of Washington’s use of sanctions policy. Having concluded that Russia’s relationship with the West is irreparable, Putin is pivoting to Asia and is cultivating new trade and commerce partnerships with other authoritarian regimes such as China, Iran and North Korea,” said former DIA intelligence officer and Doctrine & Strategy Consulting president Rebekah Koffler.
In an effort to stave off international isolation, Putin has looked to forge closer ties with Iran as seen by his visit to Tehran in July, a trip that marked his first venture outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since invading Ukraine. Observers say a closer Russia-Iran alliance would help both states mitigate the impact of Western sanctions by opening new markets for their products and boosting military cooperation.
“Russia’s relationship with Iran is a marriage of convenience, but a marriage nonetheless, with a range of dangerous consequences for the U.S. and our allies,” said former deputy national security adviser Victoria Coates. She continued: “For example, they will be able to join forces to evade U.S. sanctions on Russia’s oil exports. By simply cycling their oil through Iran, Russia will continue to fuel their war machine in Ukraine. Iran could also persuade Russia to activate the S-400 missile systems in Syria, which would be a major complication for Israel,” Coates told Fox News Digital.
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Israel has recently become more vocal in its effort to shape a revived nuclear deal, and according to reports, remains pessimistic that a new agreement could prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Current Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has argued that the dangers a new deal entails are even greater than the previous one.
Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal has been a top priority for the Biden administration. Opponents of the deal have pointed out that temporarily limiting Tehran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief allowing for the release of billions of dollars of frozen Iranian assets as well as oil and gas revenues would render the deal flawed from the onset. Unfreezing currently unavailable funds could also help Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, divert billions of dollars to hostile militant groups. In response, Iran’s regional adversaries could be intimidated into developing or acquiring their own nuclear weapons.
Under the terms of the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran received sanctions relief in exchange for sharp limits on its nuclear program. While a new deal is expected to include a strict monitoring regime to verify Iran is meeting its commitments, physical nuclear constraints would expire after a number of years.
“Ultimately, this issue boils down to the reality that we cannot base a critical national security issue such as preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb on such a flimsy and unenforceable international agreement. The threat of a nuclear Iran, given Tehran’s repeated pledges to annihilate the United States and Israel, is a deadly serious one that cannot be outsourced to the U.N.,” Coates said.
Putin, observers argue, has further demonstrated contempt for international norms by attempting to cement Russia’s ties with the Islamic Republic during a critical time in which Iran has been violating its nonproliferation commitment. Iran is reportedly enriching uranium to as much as 60% purity and nearing the 90% purity required for nuclear weapons.
As one of the world’s foremost experts in atomic energy, Russia has helped build and operate atomic reactors in Iran. However, with Iranian nuclear weapons posing a strategic threat to its national security, Russia became instrumental in the diplomatic success that led to the 2015 agreement.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has demanded that any Ukraine-related sanctions not interfere with potential business in Iran. Giving Russia an intermediary role in shaping the Iran deal could hand the world’s most-sanctioned nation unwarranted leverage.
State Department spokesman Ned Price has said that although the JCPOA would not provide a means for the Russian Federation to escape Ukraine-related sanctions, the U.S. would not sanction Russia for “undertaking or participating in nuclear projects that are part of the JCPOA.”
Russia may have already signed a contract with Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization for the development of projects at the Bushehr Nuclear Plant. “If Russia is made the custodian of Iran’s enriched facility, it will continue the revenue stream to Russia which reportedly provided them with some $10 billion under the JCPOA for their services,” Coates added.
Having already earned billions of dollars building Iran’s nuclear reactors, Moscow will undoubtedly hope to sell arms to Tehran for billions more. Koffler claims a new Iran nuclear deal could hand Russia the means of resupplying its war machine and prolonging the conflict in Ukraine.
“The Biden Administration must abandon its hopes that Putin will help the U.S. broker a good deal with Iran. Whatever Moscow may promise Washington in terms of assistance with Iran and the JCPOA, cannot be trusted. Although there’s little that can be done at this point to reign in the Russia-Iran cooperation, abandoning the JCPOA will at least eliminate Russia’s role in it,” noted Koffler.
After months of indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran in Vienna and recently in Qatar, it is still far from certain whether a new Iran nuclear deal will be reached. Given Iran’s demand that the U.S. guarantee that Tehran will continue to receive sanctions relief if the deal later collapses, experts caution the Biden administration could be forced into making concessions with dire ramifications for the region at large.
The nuclear deal “must be soberly and seriously planned for by both the Biden administration and the American people’s elected representatives in Congress,” Coates said.