By supporting allies and marketing its armaments, the Islamic Republic expands its influence and intimidation, and tests its munitions, while adding to its fiscal revenues.
Iran’s political and military elites continue to deny that their country’s burgeoning weapons industry is becoming a major supplier of munitions to Russia. The Kremlin has been circumspect, referring to nomenclature that defines the armaments as Russian. Yet as Russia’s weapons systems run low on their own munitions during action on the battlefields and in the airspace of Ukraine, evidence is mounting from attack wreckage that rebadged Iranian-manufactured combat, kamikaze, and reconnaissance drones – as well as surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, apparently – are taking a deadly toll on Ukrainian soldiers, civilians, and infrastructure. Trainers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been sent to a base in Crimea to train Russians to use the munitions, according to U.S. officials.
Tehran’s government is besieged by mounting sanctions, limited finances, rising unemployment, shortfalls in housing, and constant droughts. Many of Iran’s citizens have been regularly demanding change, and their protests now may be coalescing into a nationwide uprising. So why does the regime risk further international and domestic anger by supplying martial expertise and ordnance to a once mighty, but now struggling, regional partner?
Influence and Intimidation
Russia, for all its economic and conventional-military weaknesses, is still a nuclear superpower. Like the People’s Republic of China, Russia has consistently shielded the Islamic Republic from the full-force of U.S., EU, and UN ire over Tehran’s reprobate geopolitical actions. Now Iran gets to return the favor, proving Russia’s efforts were not for naught. Iranian and Russian officials reportedly reached an ordnance agreement in early October. Even more significant from Iran’s foreign policy standpoint, Tehran’s leaders have scored a major triumph by securing the political indebtedness of Vladimir Putin.
The Islamic Republic claims to stand up against “the arrogant Western governments,” in the words of its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As NATO members buttress Ukraine’s government, Iran’s leaders project their own image of bolstering a beleaguered Russia, thereby signaling to emerging powers and third world countries that abjuring Western-crafted global parameters is possible. Indeed, the U.S. and EU have repeatedly warned Iran against re-equipping the Russian military’s assaults on Ukraine, but to no avail.
Essentially Iran is demonstrating that it will stand by its anti-Western allies. Tehran supports Russia now just as it already supports the Houthis in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria. The message certainly rings clear to leaderships in Baghdad, Beirut, Sanaa, Pyongyang, and even Beijing. Tehran is sending a warning to the governments in Washington, London, Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, in addition, that it has no intention of bridling its ambitions to reshape the world order, whether a nuclear deal is revived or not.
Battlefield Trials Could Yield Additional Buyers
Like Turkey did through Azerbaijan in Armenia, Iran is testing its latest military technology through Russia in Ukraine, without having to be a protagonist itself. Iran did the same in Yemen and Syria, and even if Tehran’s weapons never hit Israel directly from Iran, attacks from Southern Lebanon are now regular. Similarly, American and Kurdish bases in Iraq and Syria have felt the impacts of Iran’s new precision-guided missiles. Saudi Aramco experienced carefully targeted strikes by Iranian drones and missiles in September 2019. Sporadic attacks on Saudi Arabia’s petrochemical facilities have continued, launched from Houthi-controlled areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Now, the Iranian military and the Guard Corps have a European setting from which to gather operational data. It also gets to spread its threats directly into Europe, even if Russians utilize their weapons differently from how Iran would.
After having relied on Tehran’s drone technology for many years, Russia now needs ready-to-fly machines. In turn, Russia’s use of Iranian weapons serves far more vividly than Syrian and Houthi usage to display Iran's deadly technology for prospective buyers. The effectiveness of Iranian military technology is still debated. At least half of Iran-supplied drones and missiles are shot down by Ukrainian defenses before harm is done. Yet manufacturers and operators are becoming more skilled with each deployment, and what better endorsement for Iranian munitions than their adoption by the armed forces of a global power.
Tehran’s currency-strapped regime profits financially from supplying weapons to Moscow. Despite sanctions by the West, Russia has the funds to pay Iran, thanks to its continuing oil and gas exports, especially to Asian countries. Russia is showing its appreciation through other, more long-term fiscal mechanisms too – including investing $2.7 billion in Iran’s oil and gas sectors. Tehran’s autocrats can use this cash to shore up their support domestically, thereby ensuring regime survival during a time of strident protests.
More to Come
Among all these negatives there still is a positive outcome for the U.S. and for other states, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who seek to block Iran’s geopolitical maneuvers. They too now get to assess Iran’s operational capabilities under combat situations, rather than indirectly through satellite imagery and intelligence information. That data will be needed by the West, for Ukraine will not be the last arena where Tehran’s killing machines reap.
Weapons and military technology enable Tehran’s leaders to expand their regional and global impact, while bringing in revenue to replace income lost to sanctions. Not surprisingly, Iranian military commanders speak of their nation as aiming to become one of the world’s leading arms exporters. Ultimately, the Islamic Republic of Iran may not even care much about the chaos it sows outside its borders, taking the attitude that “where they (i.e., the weapons) are being used is not the seller’s issue.”
JAMSHEED K. CHOKSY is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian studies and Director of the US Title VI Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. CAROL E. B. CHOKSY is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University. The views expressed are the authors' own.