The US is fighting to prevent Iran from supplying drones to Russia

Rescue workers comb through the rubble of an apartment building hit by a Russian drone in Kiev on October 17, 2022. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

Rescue workers comb through the rubble of an apartment building hit by a Russian drone in Kiev on October 17, 2022. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has launched a broad effort to halt Iran’s ability to produce and deliver drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, an effort that echoes the years-long US program to cut off Tehran’s access to nuclear technology.

In interviews in the US, Europe and the Middle East, a number of intelligence, military and national security officials have described a growing US program aimed at stifling Iran’s ability to manufacture the drones and making it more difficult for the Russians to launch them. unmanned “kamikaze” planes and – if all else fails – to give the Ukrainians the defenses necessary to shoot them out of the sky.

The breadth of the effort has become clearer in recent weeks. The administration has accelerated its moves to strip Iran of the Western-made components needed to make the drones sold to Russia after examination of the wreckage of intercepted drones found they are loaded with American-made technology.

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US forces are helping Ukraine’s military target the sites where the drones are being prepared for launch – a difficult task because the Russians move the launch sites around, from soccer fields to parking lots. And the Americans are rushing in with new technologies designed to provide early warning of approaching swarms of drones, to improve Ukraine’s chances of bringing them down, with everything from gunfire to missiles.

But all three approaches have run into deep challenges, and the drive to cut off critical parts for the drones has already proven as difficult as the decades-old drive to strip Iran of the components needed to build the delicate centrifuges it uses to enrich near-bomb grade uranium. The Iranians, US intelligence officials have said in recent weeks, are applying their drone program expertise to how to spread the manufacture of nuclear centrifuges around the country and find “dual use” technologies on the black market to circumvent export controls.

Indeed, one of the Iranian companies identified by Britain, France and Germany as a key manufacturer of one of the two types of drones being bought by the Russians, Qods Aviation, has for years appeared on UN lists of suppliers to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. The company, which is owned by Iran’s military, has expanded its line of drones despite waves of sanctions.

The administration’s struggle to deal with the Iranian-supplied drones comes at a significant juncture in the war, as Ukraine uses its own drones to strike deep into Russia, including an attack this week on a base that houses some of the country’s strategic bombers. And it comes as officials in Washington and London warn that Iran may be supplying Russia with missiles to help alleviate Moscow’s acute shortage.

Officials across the Western alliance say they are convinced Iran and Russia, both isolated by US-led sanctions, are building a new alliance of convenience. A senior military official said the partnership had deepened quickly after Iran’s deal to supply drones to the Russians last summer “Putin bailed out.”

The Biden administration, which has given up hope of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, has been adding new sanctions every few weeks.

In the effort to stop the drone strikes, Biden’s aides are also engaging an ally with a long history of undermining Iran’s nuclear program: Israel.

In a secure video conference last Thursday with Israel’s top national security, military and intelligence officials, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, discussed Iran’s growing military relationship with Russia, including the transfer of weapons the Kremlin is deploying against Ukraine, aimed at its civilians. infrastructure and Russia’s supply of military technology to Iran in return,” the White House said in a summary of the meeting. The statement did not provide details on how the two countries decided to resolve the issue.

But the fact that the administration chose to highlight the discussion at a quarterly meeting usually focused on disrupting Iran’s nuclear capabilities was notable. Israel and the United States have a long history of working together to deal with technological threats emanating from Tehran. Together they developed one of the world’s most famous and sophisticated cyberattacks, using computer code later dubbed “Stuxnet” to attack Iran’s nuclear centrifuge facilities.

Since then, Israel has made no secret of its attempts to sabotage nuclear enrichment centers.

In a statement, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson acknowledged the scope of the broad effort against Iran’s drone program.

“We are looking at ways to target Iranian UAV production through sanctions, export controls and talking to private companies whose parts have been used in production,” she said, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles.

She added: “We are assessing additional steps we can take in terms of export controls to limit Iran’s access to technologies used in drones.”

Years in the making

Iran’s interest in drones dates back more than three decades, when it was looking for ways to monitor and harass ships in the Persian Gulf. Mohajer I, a predecessor to one of the drones now sold to the Russians, made its first flight in 1986.

Progress was slow but may have been aided in 2011 when the Central Intelligence Agency took a stealthy, unarmed RQ-170 from the Pentagon’s fleet in Afghanistan and flew it over Iran in what appeared to be an attempt to map some of the hundreds of tunnels dug by the Iranians to hide elements of their nuclear program.

A malfunction caused the plane to land in the desert, and President Barack Obama briefly considered sending in a Navy SEAL team to blow it up before it fell into the hands of Iranian engineers, senior officials later reported. He decided not to take the risk, and within days the Iranians were parading the drone through the streets of Tehran, a propaganda victory.

But US intelligence officials later concluded that the aircraft likely proved a bonanza for Iranian drone designers who could reverse engineer the craft.

It wasn’t until 2016 that Iran announced it was beginning to develop attack drones, some in collaboration with Russia. Many of the first were placed in the hands of Iranian-backed militias, including Houthi rebels in Yemen, and were used most effectively in 2019 in attacks on two Saudi oil processing facilities operated by Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company.

U.S. officials said the experiences in Saudi Arabia and the targeting of U.S. forces in Syria and elsewhere gave them an appreciation of Iranian drone capabilities and the challenge of dealing with kamikaze attacks, in which a small explosive device is secured in the drone’s nose. But the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine underscored that Iran knew how to mass-produce the plane, a particular concern at a time when there are discussions about opening an Iranian factory inside Russia.

The Iranian program has hardly been without problems. Deliveries have come episodically as Russia and Iran retrofit the drones to function in the cold Ukrainian winter. And Iran has run into supply chain problems, a problem the US is seeking to exacerbate.

Nevertheless, despite years of sanctions against Iran’s defense sector, Iranian drones are still built largely with American and Western parts. When photographs began to circulate of printed circuit boards from downed drones, visibly packed with chips from American manufacturers, the White House ordered a crackdown, including calls to the companies whose products had been discovered. Almost everyone had the same reaction: These are unlimited, “dual use” goods whose circulation is almost impossible to stop.

The administration is trying anyway.

In September, the Biden administration tightened the sanctions, specifically naming companies involved in building the plane to Russia. That was followed by further action in November against companies such as Safiran Airport Services, a Tehran-based firm it accused of sending the drones on behalf of the Russian government.

In November, the Treasury Department sanctioned two companies based in the United Arab Emirates, a key US ally, accusing them of colluding with Safiran.

Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said the sanctions were hardly an immediate fix.

“Export controls will have an effect, but you have to be realistic about the timelines that they will work on,” Kofman said.

“Sanctions delay and make costly procurement of components,” he said. “But determined countries will get their hands on technology for narrow defense applications or adjust their weapon designs to what they can get, even if it’s less reliable.”

As the war progresses, the US, UK, France and Germany are pressing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to launch a formal investigation into whether Russia and Iran are jointly violating the terms of a UN embargo. on the export of sophisticated weapons from Iran.

Guterres has made it clear that his top priority is to execute a deal with Russia on Ukrainian grain exports to ease shortages, and his aides say now is not the time to jeopardize that deal with an investigation whose conclusion seems predictable .

Tracking the drones

Iran appears to fly drones to Russian forces on cargo planes, usually over routes that do not allow for interception. That means trying to attack them on the ground – no easy task.

Until a little more than a month ago, US and British officials say, the drones were largely based in Crimea. They then disappeared for a number of days and reappeared in Russian-occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia province. The movements have been tracked by American and Ukrainian officials, some sitting side by side in military intelligence centers. But the drones are highly mobile, with launch systems mounted on trucks, and the Russians know they are being hunted — so they move them to safer locations, making tracking and attacking them difficult.

“The change of launch site is likely due to Russian concerns about Crimea’s vulnerability, while also being convenient for resupply from the weapons’ likely arrival point in Russia, at Astrakhan,” a British military assessment said this month.

There is growing evidence that the military relationship can be a two-way street. Britain has accused Russia of planning to give Iran advanced military components in exchange for hundreds of drones.

“Iran has become one of Russia’s best military backers,” Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, told parliament last week.

“In return for supplying more than 300 kamikaze drones, Russia now intends to supply Iran with advanced military components, undermining both the Middle East and international security – we must expose that deal,” Wallace said.

A number of US companies, including Edgesource Corp. and BlueHalo, both based in Virginia — have provided training or technology to help detect and defeat the Russian drones, U.S. officials said.

Edgesource has donated about $2 million in systems, including one called Windtalkers, to help Ukraine locate, identify and track incoming enemy drones more than 20 miles away while also identifying Ukraine’s own drones in the same airspace, Joseph said Urbaniak, the company’s director of operations.

The United States has provided Ukraine with other technology to counter drones, most recently as part of a $275 million shipment of weapons and equipment the Pentagon announced on December 9. But US officials have declined to provide details on the specific assistance, citing operational security.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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