Iran’s supply of drones to Russia has become a major media story in recent weeks. Although reports about Russia seeking Iranian drones go back several months, Moscow’s decision to use the drones widely to attack Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure is setting off alarm bells in the West.
The European Union has warned Iran about possible sanctions over its drone supplies, and the US has already sanctioned Iranian regime-linked companies involved in the production and manufacture of drones.
As Western intelligence and then governments became aware of drones, there have been increasing media reports. However, it is the murder of innocent Ukrainians with Iranian-style weapons that is causing real concern and anger, and this is damaging Iran’s ability to infiltrate the West with its talking points.
In the past, Iran supplied missile and drone know-how to militias and terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. For instance, it was responsible for increasing the abilities of Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iranian support for these groups helped lead to numerous wars between Israel and Hamas. It also helped bankrupt Lebanon and turn southern Lebanon into a Hezbollah-occupied region.
Iran's role in Ukraine war is nothing new
Iran was basically responsible for doing to Israel what Russia is doing to Ukraine, and its role led to ruin in areas occupied by Iranian-backed groups, the way Russia has ruined parts of Ukraine and created illegally annexed areas.
The Islamic Republic’s threats against Israel were often dismissed in the West. Some voices responded to the Iranian threat by wanting to work with Iran, appease Iran, sign a nuclear deal with Iran, or even shift US and Western policy to be pro-Iran and reduce ties to countries threatened by Iran.
A persistent Iranian lobby that infiltrated think tanks in Washington helped push talking points for the Tehran regime. These talking points tended to downplay the threat of Iran’s drones and missiles.
For instance, Iran used missiles to attack the Kurdistan Region in 2018, targeting opposition groups, and no one responded to the threat. It also attacked Saudi Arabia in 2019, wreaking havoc at Abqaiq. The general consensus in the West, however, was that nothing should be done that might provoke Iran.
Tehran targeted ships in May and June of 2019 in the Gulf of Oman and used a drone to kill two crew members on a ship in July 2021. Nevertheless, no matter how many illegal attacks Iran carried out, the general consensus was that nothing should be done against it.
The drone threats to Israel also rapidly increased. In February 2018, Iran launched a drone at the Jewish state, and in May 2021, it launched one from Iraq. It also launched drones from Iran directly at Israel in 2022. Israel has the air defenses to stop these attacks, and it has the capabilities, backed by the US, to interdict Iran’s threats.
Over time, as the Iranian threat grew, voices in Washington have pushed for targeted sanctions and awareness of Iran’s various weapons programs, such as the missiles and drones that terrorize the region.
Members of Congress have backed the Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defenses (DEFEND) Act, which bolsters air defense among the Abraham Accords countries, and the Stop Iranian Drones Act, which would make it the policy of the US to prevent Iran and Iranian-aligned terrorist and militia groups from acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles.
Iran’s increasing role in backing Russia has increased awareness of Iranian threats. This illustrates that although the Islamic Republic was involved in human-rights abuses in Iraq and Syria, backing Hamas, the Houthis and Hezbollah, and carrying out attacks all over the Middle East, threatening the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, US forces, Turkish forces in Iraq and others, it is Iran’s role in helping Russia that has tipped the scales against itself.
Iran's facade has started to crack
FOR MANY years, Iran tried to sell a story in the West that it had “moderates” and about how it was merely against “Zionism” and that it was an “axis of resistance” against “US arrogance.” These talking points sometimes found supporters. For the pro-Iran lobby and those who wanted to find an accommodation with Tehran, there was a desire to work with people such as Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister, to bring Iran over to the West.
This came at a complex time, as some voices in foreign-policy circles were seeking to shift relations away from Saudi Arabia and toward Qatar, Iran and others. There were also foreign-policy influencers in the West who argued that a nuclear Iran might “stabilize” the Middle East, that the West could work with Russia against China and that Israel was a liability.
While these voices had inroads from 2006 onward, increasing evidence of Iran’s threats has made appeasement of Tehran more difficult.
Iran’s crackdown on protests and its decision to grow closer to Russia, at a time when the West is angered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, appears to be a final straw regarding any appeasement of Tehran. Now, it is clear that Iran’s threats won’t remain in the Middle East and that working with it hasn’t helped. Instead, it empowered Tehran to work with Moscow, which is using Iranian-style weapons to kill civilians in Ukraine.
One could ask tough questions about why the Moscow-Tehran role in massacring Syrians did not get the same awareness in the West, but the overall trajectory now is that Iran has painted itself into a Russian corner.
Some questions remain about Iran’s supply of drones. Is it supplying the drones themselves or merely the blueprints and technology? Will Russia buy more drones? Will this lead to other defense procurements by Russia, using Iran to make weapons it can use on the cheap to massacre Ukrainians? Will Iran’s supply of drones and maybe missiles in the future mean that it has fewer supplies to send to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups?
Either way, the importance of Iran’s transfer of drones to Russia is that its threat is now global, and many countries that might have preferred some kind of accommodation with the Islamic Republic now understand that the Moscow-Tehran axis is a growing threat and that both countries are harming civilians in Ukraine. This has weakened Iran’s ability to lobby the West and likely harmed the ability of its leaders to get greeted with a red carpet anytime in the near future.
In short, Iran’s flirtation with Moscow has harmed its reputation more than many of its attacks on countries across the Middle East. Tehran may not have realized that its impunity was being reduced via Moscow; it thought that Russia had helped shield it from sanctions and that it had even helped it in the Iran-deal era.
Now, it sees how helping Moscow has eroded its ability to work with the West. Countries that once wanted to trade with Tehran are now very displeased with the drone exports, and countries such as Ukraine and its friends are now very skeptical of Iran and angered by its abuses.
This is a major shift from just a few years ago, when it could pretend it was a victim of US sanctions. The victim has become the perpetrator, and Iran cannot open the doors it used to in the West.