By David E. Sanger, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt
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 endeavor that has echoes of the yearslong U.S. program to cut off Tehran’s access to nuclear technology.
In interviews in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, a range of intelligence, military and national security officials have described an expanding U.S. program that aims to choke off Iran’s ability to manufacture the drones, make it harder for the Russians to launch the unmanned “kamikaze” aircraft and — if all else fails — to provide the Ukrainians with 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 deprive Iran of the Western-made components needed to manufacture the drones being sold to Russia after it became apparent from examining the wreckage of intercepted drones that they are stuffed with made-in-America technology.
U.S. forces are helping Ukraine’s military to target the sites where the drones are being prepared for launch — a difficult task because the Russians are moving the launch sites around, from soccer fields to parking lots. And the Americans are rushing in new technologies designed to give early warning of approaching drone swarms, 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 is already proving as difficult as the decades-old drive to deprive Iran of the components needed to build the delicate centrifuges it uses to enrich near-bomb-grade uranium. The Iranians, U.S. intelligence officials have said in recent weeks, are applying to the drone program their expertise about how to spread nuclear centrifuge manufacturing around the country and to find “dual use” technologies on the black market to sidestep export controls.
In fact, one of the Iranian companies named 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 appeared for years on the United Nations’ 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 scramble to deal with the Iranian-supplied drones comes at a significant moment in the war, just as Ukraine is using its own drones to strike deep into Russia, including an attack last week on a base housing some of the country’s strategic bombers. And it comes as officials in Washington and London warn that Iran may be about to provide Russia with missiles, helping alleviate Moscow’s acute shortage.
Officials across the Western alliance say they are convinced that Iran and Russia, both isolated by U.S.-led sanctions, are building a new alliance of convenience. One senior military official said that partnership had deepened quickly, after Iran’s agreement to supply drones to the Russians last summer “bailed Putin out.”
The Biden administration, having abandoned hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran, has been adding new sanctions every few weeks.
In the effort to stop the drone attacks, Biden’s aides are also engaging an ally with a long history of undermining Iran’s nuclear program: Israel.
In a secure video meeting on Dec. 22 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, targeting its civilian infrastructure and Russia’s provision of military technology to Iran in return,” the White House said in a summary of the meeting. The statement did not offer details about how the two countries decided to address the issue.
But the fact that the administration chose to highlight the discussion, in a quarterly meeting normally focused on disrupting Iran’s nuclear capabilities, was notable. Israel and the United States have a long history of operating together in dealing with technological threats emanating from Tehran. Together they developed one of the world’s most famous and sophisticated cyberattacks, using computer code that was later called “Stuxnet,” to attack Iran’s nuclear centrifuge facilities.
Since then, Israel has made little secret of its attempts to sabotage nuclear enrichment centers.
In a statement, Adrienne Watson, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, acknowledged the scope of the broad drive 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 the production,’’ she said, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles.
She added, “We are assessing further steps we can take in terms of export controls to restrict Iran’s access to technologies used in drones.”
Years in the making
Iran’s interest in drones dates back more than three decades, as the country looked for ways that it could monitor, and harass, ships in the Persian Gulf. The Mohajer I, a predecessor to one of the drones now being 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 effort to map some of the hundreds of tunnels dug by the Iranians to hide elements of their nuclear program.
A malfunction led to the aircraft landing 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 paraded the drone through the streets of Tehran, a propaganda victory.
But U.S. intelligence officials later concluded that the aircraft likely proved a bonanza for Iranian drone designers, who could reverse engineer the craft.
It was not until 2016 that Iran announced it was beginning to develop attack drones, some in cooperation with Russia. Many of the first were placed in the hands of Iranian-backed militias, including Houthi.
rebels in Yemen, and they were used most effectively in 2019 in attacks on two Saudi oil processing facilities run by Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company.
U.S. officials said the experiences in Saudi Arabia, and the targeting of American forces in Syria and elsewhere, gave them an appreciation of Iranian drone capabilities, and the challenge of dealing with kamikaze raids in which a small explosive is secured in the drone’s nose. But the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine underscored that Iran knew how to mass produce the aircraft, a particular worry at a moment when there are discussions of opening an Iranian plant inside Russia.
The Iranian program has hardly been without its problems. Deliveries have come episodically, as Russia and Iran retrofitted the drones to operate in the cold of a Ukrainian winter. And Iran has run into supply chain issues, a problem the United States is seeking to worsen.
Nonetheless, despite years of sanctions on Iran’s defense sector, Iranian drones still are built largely with American and Western parts. When photographs began to circulate of circuit boards from downed drones, visibly packed with chips from U.S. manufacturers, the White House ordered a crackdown, including calls to the firms whose products had been discovered. Almost all had the same reaction: These are unrestricted, “dual use” items whose circulation is almost impossible to stop.
The administration is trying anyway.
In September, the Biden administration tightened sanctions, specifically naming companies involved with building the aircraft for Russia. That was followed by further action in November against companies like Safiran Airport Services, a Tehran-based firm that it accused of shipping the drones on behalf of the Russian government.
In November, the Treasury Department sanctioned two companies based in the United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally, accusing them of collaborating with Safiran.
Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said that the sanctions were hardly an instant solution.
“Export controls are going to have an effect, but you have to be realistic about the timelines on which they will work,” Kofman said.
“Sanctions delay and make costly acquisition of components,” he said. “But determined countries will get their hands on tech for narrow defense applications, or adjust their weapon designs to what they can get, even if it’s less reliable.”
As the war grinds on, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are pressing the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, to launch a formal investigation into whether Russia and Iran are, together, violating the terms of a U.N. restriction on the export of sophisticated arms from Iran.
Guterres has made clear that his top priority is executing a deal with Russia over the export of Ukrainian grain, to alleviate shortages, and his aides say now is not the time to risk that agreement with an investigation whose conclusion seems predictable.
Tracking the drones
Iran appears to be flying drones to Russian forces on cargo aircraft, usually over routes that leave little opportunity to intercept them. That means attempting to attack them on the ground — no easy task.
Until a little more than a month ago, U.S. and British government officials say, the drones were largely based in Crimea. Then they disappeared for a number of days, reappearing in Russian-occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia province. The movements have been tracked by U.S. 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, which makes tracking and striking them a difficult proposition.
“The change of launch site is likely due to Russian concerns about the vulnerability of Crimea, while it is also 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 may 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 top military backers,” Britain’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, told Parliament last week.
“In return for having supplied more than 300 kamikaze drones, Russia now intends to provide Iran with advanced military components, undermining both Middle East and international security — we must expose that deal,” Wallace said.
A number of American 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 hostile drones more than 20 miles away, while at the same time identifying Ukraine’s own drones in the same air space, said Joseph Urbaniak, the company’s chief operating officer.
The United States has provided Ukraine with other technology to counter drones, most recently as part of a $275 million shipment of arms and equipment the Pentagon announced Dec. 9. But U.S. officials have declined to provide details on the specific assistance, citing operational security.