Russia-Iran Relations Take a Quantum Leap

When US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan first spoke about a potential Iran-Russian drone deal, Moscow kept quiet and Tehran issued a pro forma rebuttal, which suggested that it is still a work in progress. Sullivan’s disclosure appeared at the end of a White Course briefing for President Biden’s West Asia tour to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and seemed to have an element of grandstanding aimed at fuelling the latent anti-Iran sentiments in the Gulf region that could in turn impart momentum to POTUS’ project to put together an Israeli-Arab military front in the region. 

In the event, the ploy didn’t work. After Biden’s visit ended, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told CNN, amongst other things, that talks are going on between Iran and the GCC states for improvement of relations and the focus should be on changing Iran’s behaviour. 

But Sullivan has repeated his charge and has since added that an official Russian delegation “recently received a showcase of Iranian attack-capable UAVs,” the last time being as recently as on July 5. CNN has cited White House officials as saying that Iran is expected to supply Russia with hundreds of drones for use in the war in Ukraine, “with Iran preparing to begin training Russian forces on how to operate them as early as late July.” 

Iran is known to have a varied drone ecosystem and is reportedly showcasing to Russia the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 “killer” drones. According to published information, Shahed-129 has a wingspan of 50 feet with a cruising speed of about 160 km per hour, an endurance of 24 hours with a range of 1,700 km and a ceiling of 24,000 feet. The 129 can carry 8  Sadid-345 miniaturized precision-guided bombs capable of hitting moving targets. The bomb’s small size with a range of 6 km, reduces collateral damage and would allow the Shahed to achieve more kills or attack strikes per mission. 

The Shahed 191 carries two Sadid-1 missiles internally, has a cruising speed of 300 km/h, an endurance of 4.5 hours, a range of 450 km, and a payload of 50kg. The ceiling is 25,000 ft. Iran’s Fars News Agency says the Shahed 191 has been used in combat in Syria. 

Both are stealth drones, harder for air defences to detect. Russia is, reportedly, short of such armed drones, which have the capability to undertake long-range missions to find and destroy, for example, the US-supplied HIMARS mobile rocket launchers which are currently deployed in Ukraine as well as knocking out Ukrainian air defences. Besides, drones are relatively cheap and expendable, unlike crewed aircraft.

If the drone deal indeed goes through, as seems likely, it will mark a quantum leap in Russia-Iran relations. For, Iran will be doing something that only China is capable of doing but won’t out of fear of US reprisal. That makes Iran a very special partner country indeed. Ironically, Russia is yet to upgrade its relationship with Iran as “strategic.” 

On its part, Iran is literally sticking out its neck in an act of defiance of the West’s “rules-based order”, as Russia will be deploying its weapon systems on a European battlefield against the air defence systems supplied to Ukraine by the US and NATO countries. There cannot be many parallels of an emerging middle power rendering such critical help to a superpower in high-tech warfare in real conditions on the frontline. Of course, it enhances Iran’s standing regionally and internationally. 

In geopolitical terms, however, the most important salience lies in the certainty that the door is closing on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US via European mediators. Tehran would have drawn the conclusion already that President Joe Biden is virtually co-opting his predecessor’s [Israel Lobby dictated] Iran policy and the US has reverted to its decades-old strategy of promoting an Israeli-Arab front against Tehran. Put differently, Tehran is moving on to a trajectory that is predicated on unremitting American hostility. 

This will mean that Tehran will double down on its efforts to improve relations with its Aran neighbours and explore all possible avenues in that direction, seizing the window of opportunity in the new Saudi thinking to reduce its dependence on the US and explore its strategic autonomy. It is possible to say that Tehran is a beneficiary if the Saudi-Russian and Saudi-Chinese relationships strengthen. Arguably, Saudi Arabia’s quest for BRICS membership brings the Kingdom tantalisingly close to Iran’s world view which places primacy on a democratised, multipolar world order where every country is free to choose its developmental path. 

To be sure, against this backdrop, President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran on Tuesday is invested with great importance. Iran is becoming one of the most consequential relationships for Russia. What began as a limited alliance in Syria is taking on a global character. 

By M. K. Bhadrakumar
Source: Indian Punchline

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