Iran and US engaged in a delicate drone dance -analysis

On the eve of the visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel and Saudi Arabia, the White House revealed that Russia was interesting in acquiring Iranian drones and drone technology.

Drones are seen during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 4, 2021. Picture taken January 4, 2021 (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)
Drones are seen during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 4, 2021. Picture taken January 4, 2021
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)

Iranian media is taking an interest in stories in Western media about its drones. This is not surprising, since it often launders for its own interests by reporting that “foreign media” said something. For instance, Iran will say it has received information on a cyberattack or on some “mysterious explosion” in Israel and pretends that reporting it means there is some nefarious connection to Iran’s abilities.

The reports are used to tell us that Iran knows that its adversaries are concerned. Now Tehran is doing this with drones, seeking to highlight how the US is concerned about potential Iranian drone sales to Russia, and its increasing drone capabilities.

“Iran has the domestic ability to produce drones and we have seen with our own eyes how these drones have been used against our forces and our facilities in Syria and Iraq”

John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson

On the eve of the visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel and Saudi Arabia, the White House revealed that Russia was interested in acquiring Iranian drones and drone technology. Iran and Russia downplayed this claim, even as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was flying to Tehran for meetings. But the drone story won’t go away. Fars News says that America is expressing concern about Iran’s drone capabilities.

John Kirby's statements

Although Iranian media quotes National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, he has indicate in the last few days that there is no sign yet of the drone transfer or training. But Iran’s media has a different story to tell.

“He admitted that there is no indication that Iran has sold drones to Russia, but this does not mean that Russia is not interested in doing this deal,” one report claims, adding that Kirby said “Iran has the domestic ability to produce drones, and we have seen with our own eyes how these drones have been used against our forces and our facilities in Syria and Iraq.” Washington is apparently following the drone issue closely and taking it seriously.

 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. (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. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

But there is more here. The headline of the article claims that the US has “seen Iran’s drone power with our own eyes.” That’s a big headline for an article that appears to say nothing new about the alleged drone transfer. So the overall interest of Iran’s pro-government media, which generally reflects the IRGC viewpoint in this case, is that the Islamic Republic is a drone powerhouse in the region, and that this power has been on display in Iraq and Syria.

Could Iran’s drones transform Russia’s war in Ukraine, especially as Russia appears to want to increase its operations and potentially annex territory it has conquered? Iran does not seem to message on this issue, not specifying how its drones might actually help Russia. Iran is more interested in showing that America is concerned.

The US, for its part, is also messaging. The messaging appears to be similar to the media reports prior to Russia’s invasion, when the White House used intelligence to warn of what was to come. This means there probably is some hint that Russia is looking at Iranian drone technology. Moreover, that Iran has been building drones in a new factory in Tajikistan shows that its technology can be built abroad. Iran also transferred technology to Yemen, Gaza and other places. Russia would likely want more sophisticated and robust technology than what is given to armed groups like the Houthis.

Iran is thus now involved in a dance with the Americans regarding its drone proliferation. For Israel, this is a unique development because the Jewish state, which Iran does not recognize, has been threatened by Iranian drones for the last several years.

That the US is increasingly recognizing the global Iranian drone threat is important. For Tehran, this is also important because it thinks this brings prestige to the program. It means Iran’s drones work not just for terror and militant groups, but that they can be exported to major military powers.