Iran is claimed to have supplied Russia with hundreds of ballistic missiles capable of striking targets up to 700 km (435 miles) away. While both Iranian and Ukrainian officials have downplayed such reports, the initiation of Iranian missile transfers to Moscow would be a major shift. It would signify a leap in Iranian military cooperation with Russia, along with the possible beginning of a new round of tension between the Islamic Republic and the west.

To learn more about the significance of potential Iranian missile transfers and what they may herald, spoke with Fabian Hinz, Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Hinz has extensively covered the drone and missile programs of Iran and its allies in the ‘Axis of Resistance’.

If Iranian missile transfers to Russia are really happening, why now?

It is very difficult to assess why we are seeing this transfer now—if confirmed—even though there have been reports about potential missile transfers for quite a while. One line of explanation is the expiration of the missile restrictions on Iran in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 in October last year.

But with the Iranians, it is always difficult to know because they’re doing very provocative things that breach a lot of international norms and treaties. For example, their transfers of long-range missiles to the [Yemeni] Houthis, and other capabilities to [Lebanese] Hezbollah. On the other hand, when transfers do not touch Iran’s core ideological project, there might be a little more restraint. Iranian officials have indicated that ballistic missile exports are subject to certain political considerations and international limitations that other kinds of weapons exports do not face, such as artillery and tank ammunition.

It is noteworthy that the Iranians still have not officially acknowledged that they are delivering Shahed drones to Russia. They will imply that the drone is now famous because of the war in Ukraine. But the Iranians cannot bring themselves to say “we are actually delivering them right at the moment.” They have said that they transferred a small number of drones to Russia prior to the Ukraine war, possibly because people have pointed out that it might have been a violation of the [UNSC Resolution 2231] missile obligations.

Moreover, Iran and Russia have had a security relationship for a very long time, which gained more intensity with the war in Syria. However, this level of cooperation is new, and establishing it has taken a while. Both the Iranians and the Russians are very hard negotiators, and I would not exclude the possibility that potential Iranian arms transfers to Russia, and the delivery of Russian arms to Iran, might have been delayed by this.

What would the practical ramifications of Iranian missile transfers be in Ukraine?

They could have a substantial impact. Shahed drones are limited in their kinetic effect; they carry warheads of approximately 50 kg (110 lbs) and impact at relatively low speed compared to ballistic missiles, which impact at several times the speed of sound and can carry warheads of up to 500 kg (1,102 lbs)—the types of missiles we are talking about in the case of Iran.

Additionally, Shahed drones can be shot down quite cheaply by a number of systems. This is while Ukraine only has certain systems, like the Patriot, that are able to intercept ballistic missiles. Intercepting missiles is not only expensive, but there is also a shortage of these types of systems globally. So, a major Iranian missile delivery would put a real strain on Ukrainian defenses.

What may Iran gain from such arms deliveries to Russia?

Using ballistic missile systems in war allows you to learn a lot about their performance, including when faced with unforeseen limitations and problems. Iran has used Shahed drones and ballistic missiles before. However, using them in a high-intensity conflict like Ukraine is something different, especially as you can—very importantly—test them against western missile defenses.

It might not be exactly the same as operating against integrated US air and missile defenses, but it still offers a lot of interesting data. It will be intriguing to see whether the Iranians will be willing to supply some of their more sophisticated ballistic missiles that have been designed to overcome missile defenses, in order to battle-test them in Ukraine. That kind of information would allow work on further development.

I also find the recently leaked documents about potential further drone deliveries to Russia very interesting. The kinds of systems Iran has allegedly offered have taken the particularities of the Ukrainian conflict into account. So we can already see Iran tweaking and expanding its capabilities based on those experiences. It could very well be that this is done in close cooperation with Russia. So, from a strictly military point of view, arms transfers offer a lot of possibilities to improve your own systems.

From a political and even psychological point of view, arms transfers help Iranian deterrence as well because the weapon systems can be seen working. They are being used by a country that is still perceived as a superpower by many nations around the world. For the Iranians, this is a real triumph because the Iranian security establishment still has this experience from the [1980-88] Iran-Iraq War where they…had to beg for weapons. And now it is them who are providing weapons. You can also see how international companies are trying to copy the Shahed drones. So that is quite a substantial development for the Iranians.

There are speculations about a quid pro quo between Iran and Russia. How could such an arrangement look?

One category of quid pro quo could cover systems that the Iranians cannot build themselves, including helicopters and fighter jets. We have seen the delivery of a few advanced Yak-130 trainers to Iran which can be used to prepare pilots for the transition to advanced Russian fighter jets like the Su-35. We have also had lots of reports about the Su-35 purchase going ahead or being late. Again, there seem to be some hiccups, but there is a good chance it might be going ahead. There have been reports about [Russian] combat helicopters as well.

The Iranians are still relying on old American designs from the Shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] era (1941-79). They are relying on a few Chinese, French and Russian-built aircraft as well, and they cannot keep flying them forever. They need some sort of upgrade even if building a strong air force is not the main priority. That being said, an upgrade will not change the geopolitical balance substantially, although it could be a pretty important asset as it may entail access to long-range air-to-air missiles.

What could Russia do to advance Iranian capabilities vis-à-vis Israel and the US?

An even more interesting quid pro quo would involve Iranian access to Russian technology. The Iranians have this drive to build as many weapon systems as they can themselves, but the outcome has been very uneven. You have some areas—ballistic and cruise missiles as well as drones—where the Iranians are developing really good systems. Then you have other areas, like armored vehicles, where we have not seen a lot in terms of advanced systems actually going into production.

So you could see Russian technology and also human expertise in the fields of shipbuilding, armored vehicles, surface-to-air missiles and air defenses being transferred. Electronic warfare is another area where there could be huge avenues for cooperation, and there has been cooperation in this field before. Space launches are another avenue for cooperation.

One more point I would add, however, is that I am not so sure that the Iran-Russia relationship is entirely transactional. I think there is a geopolitical angle to the Ukraine war, and I would even go so far to say that there may be an ideological angle to it; despite the huge ideological differences between Iran and Russia. Both see themselves as nations that are under threat from the west.

How may Israel and the west react to Iranian missile transfers?

Israel has so far been pretty reluctant to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine for a number of reasons. So you might see that calculus shift a little bit. I would assume that the Israelis would also be very interested in the performance of Iranian systems in Ukraine, and seeing what can be done against them.

In terms of Europe and the US, the problem is that there just are not that many options. Moreover, we look a lot at Iran, but the technology is also proliferating in other countries, such as South Korea. And stopping or reversing this trend is very difficult. Of course, you can put additional sanctions on the entities involved in both Russia and Iran. But apart from that, you just do not have that many good options.

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