TEL AVIV: As much as Washington has wanted to put the Middle East to the side in recent years, geopolitics always seem to bring things back to the region.
The latest: just as President Joe Biden is traveling to Israel and Saudi Arabia, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told press that Iran is preparing to send “hundreds” of military drones to Russia to help Moscow continue its invasion of Ukraine.
“Our information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline,” Sullivan said Monday, adding that Iranian forces could begin training Russians within the month on the capabilities. More details — such as what systems Iran could be sending and how many could end up in Russian hands quickly, versus down the road — were not provided by the White House.
Israeli defense sources say the Iranians will have to tap into operational stocks to give that quantity of systems to the Russians; while that could mean a slow-down in regional operations for Iran, the Israeli sources believe Iran sees this as an “investment” in relations with Russia, that might benefit Iranian operations in Syria in the future.
That Sullivan would reveal the ties between Iran and Russia right before Biden’s trip likely comes with a political aspect, as it puts pressure on both Israel and Saudi Arabia to take a harder line with Russia than they have to date.
It also throws the spotlight onto Iran’s drone program, at a time when Riyadh and Jerusalem are considering greater defense technology exchanges specifically because of concerns about drones.
In recent weeks, Israeli defense sources say, the Saudis have formally requested the Israeli ministry of defense to approve the sale of different UAVs, radar systems, other early warning systems and some air defense systems to its defense forces. Israeli officials have visited the kingdom to discuss the potential deals, Breaking Defense has learned.
“There are negotiations on actual deals and Israeli and Saudi officials are meeting almost every week to finalize such deals,” according to one senior defense source.
The source added that the Saudis are especially interested in systems that will enable them to monitor the huge airspace of the country, and systems that can protect sensitive site like oil facilities from rocket and missile attacks.
The Israeli Ministry of Defense declined to comment.
The defense source said that the negotiations are focused on systems that are not subject to an export approval of Washington. These include aerial defense systems like the Israel aerospace industries (IAI) BARAK air defense system and the Spyder made by Rafael.
Iran’s Drone History
There are interconnections to this situation that fit with the confused web that is the Middle East. For instance, Russia has bought Israeli-made drones in the past, and even used them in the early days of the Ukraine invasion. But thanks to Israel’s stance of neutrality in the conflict, Russia has not been able to purchase more, and so now is turning to Iran — the greatest focus of Israel’s ire — which has put major focus into developing its own domestic drone industry in order to strike at Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Tal Inbar, an Israeli senior expert on UAV’s, told Breaking Defense that Iran would be able to provide a number of different kinds of military drones, including armed systems, thanks to a homegrown design and production setup largely put together through imported components, despite longstanding sanctions. (Israeli sources have pointed out that some of the Iranian UAV’s have been manufactured based on reverse engineering of American and Israel UAV’s that have been shot down.)
And Tehran’s engineers seem to constantly be tinkering and rolling out new designs. As an example, Inbar pointed to the Ababil 5 that has been unveiled in April. He said that system, which is about “five meters long and has a wingspan of seven meters,” is designed to carry different variants of bombs and anti-tank missiles.
The production locations also seem to be constantly expanding. In May, 2017, the Iranian press reported on the inauguration ceremony of a UAV factory that was established In Tajikistan. Israeli defense sources believe that this plant is currently producing older models of the Iranian “Ababail” design, a cheap ISR platform. Meanwhile, on May 28, Iran unveiled an underground UAV base, at an undisclosed location; a new small, air-launched cruise missile designed to be carried by an Iranian drone was observed.
The threat posed by Iranian drones and missiles, which are often passed along to Houthi rebels in Yemen, has led to a shocking change in relationships between Israel and other regional militaries — to the point that last month Israel announced the formation of an a mutual air defense coalition that is expected to involve, among others, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
That followed the creation of a less-formal anti-UAV coalition, which has already seen one positive outcome when Israeli jets shot down two Iranian UAVs headed towards Israel, thanks in part to information fed from another country. And two weeks ago, the IDF intercepted a UAV it says was launched by Hezbollah targeting a gas rig in the Mediterranean.
The forming of this alliance triggered a fierce reaction from Iran, with Teheran stating that any such alliance will only worsen the security situation in the region. This announcement went further to say that Iran will attack targets that are part of the new alliance.
This warning was conveyed In a tweet by Nournewsen , a media outlet reflecting the policy of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Creation of joint defense pact in the region by US with participation & hidden management of Zionists is a threatening act.
If the implementation of such plans threatens security of #Iran in any way, it will face initial decisive response to the nearest & most accessible targets.
— nournewsen (@nournewsen) July 10, 2022
While all parties wait to see how the meeting goes between Biden and Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Israel trying to signal that a new chapter has been opened in the non-official relations between those two countries.
In a message ahead Biden’s visit, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid stated that “Israel reaches out to all the countries in the region and calls on them to build ties with us, to establish relations with us and to change history for the sake of our children,” adding that when Biden departs Israel for Saudi Arabia the US president will carry “a message of peace and hope from us.”