Iran is becoming a world leader in cheap, military-grade drone production, the US Defense Intelligence Agency has warned.
Analysts say Tehran is using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a theater to advertise its drone capabilities, becoming a key backer of President Vladimir Putin’s war effort.
Three models are known to have been delivered to Russia by Iran: the Shahed 131 and 136 single-use drones, used to fly kamikaze missions, and the Mohajer-6, used for airstrikes and reconnaissance.
Last week, The Guardian revealed that Iran had smuggled at least 18 drones to Russia after a military delegation from Moscow visited Tehran in November to assess Iran’s drone inventory.
Iran denies that its drones are being used by Russia for military purposes in Ukraine, but the US government believes it has sufficient evidence — both via video footage and images of drone debris — to press for harder international sanctions on Tehran.
The UK, meanwhile, presented evidence to the UN on Monday suggesting Iran has also supplied military drones to the Houthi militia in Yemen, in breach of UN resolutions, after a drone and other parts were seized by Royal Navy personnel belonging to HMS Montrose in February last year.
US analysts have compared images of debris from drone strikes in Ukraine to images of known models of Iranian drones, in some cases freely available from Iranian government sources.
One US official told The Guardian: “What we have seen is very recognisable debris from two very different geographical regions that has come from the same source.”
Iranian drones have been used for increasingly varied and ambitious attacks in recent years, from assaults on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry to the Mercer Street Tanker attack in 2021.
US analysts believe that Iran is ready to step up its drone program to full-scale participation in conventional warfare, following experiences in Ukraine.
Another American official said the DIA was declassifying information on Iran’s drone program to raise general awareness of Tehran’s intentions with the international community to drum up support for sanctions beyond the US and UK.
“The main point is that Iran’s Foreign Ministry is denying that they are being used. What the US and the UK want to do is provide irrefutable evidence to a global audience where there may be more skepticism,” the official said.
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