US declassifies evidence of Iranian drones used by Russia in Ukraine

London: US intelligence officials have declassified what they say is irrefutable evidence that Iran is supplying Russia with drones being used to attack Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure.

Analysts said that Iran was able to perfect its drone capabilities by testing them for the first time outside the Middle East and in full combat, and was positioning itself to be a global supplier of cheap and lethal drones.

In a briefing to selected media that included The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in London, officials said they wanted to share the information for the first time in the UK to the foreign press. This would inform governments who don’t have access to US intelligence and would encourage them to join in sanctions targeting Iran’s suppliers.

Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky with a downed drone recovered from the Black Sea in October 2022. Intelligence officials say parts of the drone (highlighted) match verified photos of the Iranian-made Shahed-131. Credit:Defence Intelligence Agency

Officials from the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which provides intelligence and analysis to the Pentagon, said hundreds of drones had been sold to Russia since August 2022, suggesting a stockpile of supplies. Replenishments were also believed to have started in December.

Iran has denied supplying Russia with weapons for use in Ukraine.

But US officials used videos and images from marketing materials of Iranian drones to match them to the wreckage of the one shot down in Ukraine to prove otherwise.

Images released by the DIA show matches between the debris extracted in Ukraine and components of Iranian drones, including the panelling on the exterior and what officials described as distinctive wing stabilisers.

The images matched Iran’s Shahed-136, Shahed-131 and Mohajer 6 UAVs.

Recovered components of an Iranian Shahed-131 drone in Ukraine and the Middle East show similarities, including they way they fractured after impact.Credit:Defence Intelligence Agency

“They are nearly indistinguishable from the Iranian exercise videos,” one analyst said of the evidence recovered from Ukraine.

While the use of Iranian drones has been identified by the Ukrainians and documented during the war, a DIA official said: “This is the first US government document that shows the homework.”

An image released by the Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate shows the wreckage of what Kyiv has described as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine.Credit:AP

The exports to Russia have allowed Iran to test and use its weapons in combat in colder climates compared to the Middle East and refine their deployment with one official saying that the noise they caused alerted civilians to an impending attack and would likely lead to the production of quieter models in future.

For Russia, the drones have filled a gap as its missile supplies ran dry.

“Drones fit into the Russian doctrine of attacking civilian infrastructure to break Ukrainian will,” said another official.

Ukraine has also been using drones to strike Russia, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of the country almost one year ago. There were no details on those drones.

Analysts said the Iranian drones were relatively cheap to produce, costing anywhere between $US20,000 ($29,000) to $US40,000, making them a major export opportunity for Iran.

They warned that Tehran’s partnership with Russia in the war left it poised to become a global, rather than regional, exporter of the lethal weapons.

“This is validation for Iran, it helps Iran validate [their drones] as a viable weapon,” an official, whose identity was withheld for security reasons, said.

“Iran has said this has led to interest from 20 countries, they view it as a marketing opportunity.”

Iran began developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the 1980s but its capabilities progressed substantially when it claimed to have shot down and captured a US spy drone flown from Afghanistan over its airspace in 2011.

About a year later Tehran claimed it had reverse-engineered the drone and was able to produce its own copies.

Officials said Iran’s drone usage accelerated after 2019. The country’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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