We learned this week that Iran is now allegedly the biggest external supplier of arms to Russia as the latter continues to prosecute its illegal and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine.
Last summer, Iran started to supply drones to Russia to replace those being rapidly used up as the fighting in the Russo-Ukraine war intensified. These were mainly of the Shahed-136 model, a loitering munition, “kamikaze drone” designed to attack targets from a distance and launched in waves to overcome defending anti-air systems.
It is now known that the Russians have adapted the Iranian design and replaced key elements like guidance and engine components to optimise the drone in their service. Crucially, its navigation system has been replaced so it no longer depends on the US-owned GPS one, which clearly the USA can interfere with as and when required.
The US also disclosed evidence that Iran had subsequently sent military personnel to Crimea to train and assist Russian forces in the use and deployment of the supplied drones. Furthermore, in October Iran agreed to supply yet more drones plus ballistic missiles to Russia. Ukraine and the west predict that Iran will send Russia the Fateh-110, a mobile short-range ballistic missile, and the Zolfaghar, a Fateh variant. They may already have begun to arrive.
All of which may go some way to explain the apparent urgency attending the US’s moves to supply Ukraine with its National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems (NASAMS). The US has committed to send eight of these systems to Ukraine, with two recently delivered to Ukraine where they are being or have been already installed.
Ukraine has also approached Israel to help by sending an array of air defence systems and support training for Ukrainian operators which drew a predictable response from Iran.
It is quite clear, therefore, that whilst we may not yet be involved in a classic proxy war in Ukraine, we are very definitely involved in a military equipment proxy war, pitting western weapons against those of Russia and Iran.
This is being played out against a background of major political and social upheaval in Iran. According to informed sources I have met and discussed the situation there with personally, we are now closer to the potential overthrow of a sitting Iranian government at any time since 1979, and there has been plenty of unrest there over the intervening years. The mediaeval theocracy that has held sway there for nearly the last twenty-five years is looking particularly vulnerable to change, with massed protestors demanding a return of secular government.
I have written before that the USA will at some point have to deal with Iran. It is arguably the USA and its allies’ most inveterate enemy in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea, and has been involved in skirmishes large and small against US military and civilian organisations for ages. That Iran refers to American as “the Great Satan” shows where relations stand. The US maintains a considerable military presence in the region to defend itself and allies like Saudi Arabia.
But Iran is troublesome not just because it is a centre and cause of great political instability in the Middle East, but because of its hardly disguised and persistent determination to develop its own nuclear weapons. That they have not done so already is mainly down to the Israelis, who through a combination of kinetic strikes and cyber attack – remember STUXNET – have denied the Iranians achieving their nuclear aspirations. Thank goodness for that.
Possibly the US political position on Iran has been to hold off becoming intimately involved and hope that the passage of time will eventually make the problem go away. And possibly that approach is beginning to bear fruit; the protests that were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini and subsequent female school-age victims at the hands of Iran’s “morality police” have taken hold, and the Iranian government seems unable to contain them now, despite the brutal efforts of police to do so.
Might now be the time for the US and allies to devote more time and effort, covertly or even overtly, to support the Iranian protest movement and haste the end of the running sore that is Iran? Have the “mad mullahs” had their day, and will we see a welcome return to secularism before too long?
And, at the same time, we might stop the flow of weaponry from Iran to Russia. It looks like a win-win to me, killing two birds with one stone if you like, although not without some very real dangers. Let’s see if the west has the bottle to do it.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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