Russia-Iran drone deal is about money, not the West, Israel - analysis

Iranian-produced drones are seen by Russia as a quick and cheap answer to its needs in the war against Ukraine.

 Iran's Army chief, Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi and Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri visit an underground site with drones at an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on May 28, 2022. (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
Iran's Army chief, Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi and Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri visit an underground site with drones at an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on May 28, 2022.
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Russia and Iran have reached an agreement for the Islamic Republic to start manufacturing its so-called kamikaze drones in Russia in the upcoming months. 

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The deal was reached in early November during a meeting held between Iranian and Russian officials, according to a report over the weekend in the Washington Post that cited new intelligence seen by the US and other Western security agencies. 

The arrangement comes following weeks in which Russia has continued to use Iranian-produced drones against Ukraine, which has incurred wide international condemnation.

Exploding unmanned aerial vehicles such as those being used by Russia are sometimes called kamikaze or suicide drones, two terms that have been criticized as problematic. The term kamikaze is associated with Japanese pilots who flew their planes into Allied ships in suicide attacks during World War II. Some observers consider it to be culturally insensitive or racist when applied outside that context. 

“Suicide drone,” the Associated Press writes, “suggests that these drones have agency and have somehow decided to destroy themselves, rather than being weapons of war directed by operators far away.”

Cyril Widdershoven, a Middle East defense and energy specialist at the Strategy International think tank and Verocy, tells The Media Line that the possibility of Iran producing these exploding drones in Russia is real since the ongoing cooperation between both countries is known to exist, and it also presents them with a win-win situation.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand (credit: REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand (credit: REUTERS)

Drone manufacturing deal is beneficial to both parties

Both countries see the arrangement as an advantage, he says. Iran, he explained, "will need more non-Western support, looking at the ongoing protests in Iran itself, which have the potential to be a real threat to the Khamenei regime."

For Russia, he added, "any additional production assistance is God-sent, the defense sector is struggling even to counter demand for new products in light of [the war with] Ukraine."

Concerning the threat that such activities could pose to Iran's enemies such as Israel, Alex Grinberg, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and an expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes that it is not imminent, since the Iranian drones fill a unique need for Russia.

"Russia has no drones neither of the sufficient levels of development nor a sufficient quantity," Grinberg told The Media Line.

Additionally, he explained, these exploding drones "have nothing to do with what we usually mean when we evoke the word drone." Instead, these belong to a different category of weapons. "Properly speaking, it is not a drone but a loitering munition," Grinberg added.

He says that a drone is an unmanned aircraft that requires a team of at least two or three persons to control it – one is responsible for the flight, another is responsible for the navigation, and a third is responsible for the weapons.

"Russians cannot buy thousands of such drones and also, in order to use them, you must graduate the fighter jet pilots course. It is at least a year to learn how to use this thing effectively," he noted.

He said that the loitering munition is much simpler and “you can build it with components that you can buy on eBay."

He reiterates that the Russians need these weapons to fulfill their specific need in the war against Ukraine, and they are not destined to be handed over to other countries or groups in the region.

Because of this, he says, "it is not a threat for Israel, but it is of course a threat for Ukrainian civilians."

According to Widdershoven, the advantage that these exploding drones give to Russia is significant, but it will not be the game changer to win the war. The greatest impact, he said, is that “it is a rather cheap version of putting pressure on Ukraine but will not be a significant power change in the war."

Dr. Alex Issa, lecturer in geopolitics and a Negotiation Training Officer at ESSEC Business School, adds that both countries feel excluded from the international community and these joint activities are a way for them to create certain alliances to challenge the Westernized international system.

"We should be careful, however, of news coming from American sources because of their cognitive bias," he told The Media Line

Widdershoven said that if the reports are true, it means that "Iran is increasing its full-scale support of Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine."

Iran understands nuclear deal prospects receding 

Tehran seems to understand that no Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action opportunities exist at present, he said, referring to the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers that has been under renegotiation for more than a year. Iran "supports its only staunch ally in the world. Given that China is still very diffuse in its approach to Iran, Moscow is the only real ally," he said. 

Grinberg, however, believes that Iran’s interest in the deal is purely financial and it does not necessarily mean that both countries are now allies in every aspect. "Iran and Russia have a very long and complicated history concerning their relations," he noted.

"They don't really love or like each other. But they can cooperate on some points, as they can have conflict over some others," he said.

He cites the example of the conflict between both countries regarding the partition of the territorial waters of the Caspian Sea.

Iran is not providing Russia with weapons because Tehran decided to join Moscow in its war against Ukraine, Grinberg asserted. "It's another tool to increase their revenue," in light of the current unrest in Iran and the sanctions that have crippled its economy.

"It is not about ideology," Grinberg reiterated. "They want to earn money, and the Russians need specifically these weapons," he added.