Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine is entering its eighth month, and the costs to the Kremlin’s military have been high. More isolated on the world stage, Vladimir Putin has joined the world’s club of pariah nations, the only group willing to give him support. Chief among its allies is the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country with similar imperialist structures and international isolation. This axis has been in the making for a long time – the two nations worked together extensively in Syria, for example – but the relationship has reached new heights as Russia’s armed forces grapple with the problems of war.
Perhaps the strongest signs of this relationship are the hundreds of Iranian drones that have flown into Ukraine to fill a gap in Russia’s arsenal. While Russia has used drones of its own design, it previously did not have a large supply of weapons-or ammunition-carrying drones (suicide drones). However, Iran has now provided both. The two main types of drones are Mohajer-6 and Shahed-136. As expected, Iran denies that it has supplied Russia with drones, despite clear evidence that it has.
The drones were transferred to Russia in August, but the US had warned about the operation almost a month earlier. Hundreds are believed to be in Russian hands, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has indicated that the Kremlin is looking to buy up to 2,400 more than just the Shahed-136. First deployed in mid-September, the Shahed-136 has proven to be more of a problem for Ukrainian forces, presenting a difficult target for radar and air defense systems due to its low operating altitude. The Russians have used them in cluster attacks – a technique that involves deploying large numbers of drones at once against a target area to overwhelm air defenses – with some success, hitting the Kyiv area several times in the past two weeks.
It also appears that there are Iranians in Ukraine itself helping the Russians deploy drones. Fortunately for Ukraine, the Shahed-136 is old as far as drones go, and the Ukrainian military has grounded a large number of them — perhaps 60 percent of those launched on October 10. However, the drones are still They do a lot of damage, especially hitting critical infrastructure instead of military targets.
Ukraine has downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran over drones, and the United States has imposed sanctions on selected Iranian companies. But these actions will not break the Russia-Iran axis. The benefits of the axis not only flowed through Russia either. Both countries have been strengthening economic ties, with the possibility of easing the blow of Western sanctions in the future.
In August, Russia sent an Iranian satellite into space, which could strengthen Tehran’s surveillance capabilities and represent a threat to Israel in particular. Tehran is also on track to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China and Russia, which will further its relations and cooperation with its authoritarian allies. This, along with Iran’s announcement that it will conduct naval exercises with China and Russia, indicates a major authoritarian axis is metastasizing.
If cooperation continues to increase, the danger to the West increases. Iran may acquire a nuclear weapon in the near future, especially as it faces increasing internal unrest (as North Korea knows, a nuclear weapon goes a long way in ensuring state security). For those still hoping for a deal, Russia will have little interest in helping curb its ally’s nuclear program, making a new deal impossible. Even if it wasn’t, Iran’s recent actions — such as planning to assassinate U.S. officials — should rule out further nuclear talks.
Iran and Russia can help each other in buffering the impact of tough Western sanctions, and if both grow closer to China, that impact will be further reduced. A gang of totalitarian nations is always more dangerous than an isolated one, not least because each is ready to take risks when it knows its friends are behind it. The United States should realize that the Russo-Iranian axis displayed in Ukraine is only the beginning of a long and dangerous challenge.
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