By Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN
As Russia faces growing setbacks in Ukraine, it appears to be increasingly turning to Iran for help, in a development that has sparked concern from the West and Tehran’s regional adversaries.
Sources familiar with US intelligence have told CNN that Iran has sent military trainers to Crimea to train and advise the Russian military on the use of Iranian-built drones that Moscow has used to rain down terror on cities across Ukraine.
The presence of Iranian personnel in occupied Ukrainian territory would mark a significant escalation in Iran’s involvement in the war in support of Russia, and a new phase in the two countries’ budding military alliance.
Reuters on Tuesday also reported that Iran may supply Russia with surface-to-surface missiles. Nasser Kanani, the spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied the allegation, saying Iran “has always opposed the continuation of the [Ukraine] war.”
Despite their differences, Iran and Russia have been getting closer because they “share the same threat perception,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank in Washington. “They see a regional order aligned against them by an extra-regional power,” he said, referring to the United States.
If Iran sells missiles to Russia, this would mean that it is “moving some of its most accurate, some of its most precise ammunition closer to Europe,” he said. “It is critical to see Iranian involvement with Russia as part of its larger war with the West.”
Since Russia’s invasion, the two sanctioned countries have cooperated on political and economic matters, with the military dimension being the latest facet in their relationship.
Major General Yahya Safavi, a top military aide to Iran’s supreme leader, on Tuesday boasted that 22 countries are now in the market for Iranian drones.
Iran, which before the 1979 revolution imported most of its weapons, now manufactures more than 80% of its military equipment, he was cited as saying by semi-official news agency Fars.
Iran and Russia have repeatedly denied the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Ukraine, but analysts have said that the news around Iranian drones isn’t necessarily seen as bad publicity in Tehran.
While Russia’s use of Iranian weapons may say more about its desperation in the war than Tehran’s military prowess, experts say that media reports about Iran’s killer drones are bolstering its image as it tries to show the world that its arms can compete in international conflict.
“For the Iranians, it is about getting market share, it is about prestige, it is about solidifying alliances,” said Eric Lob, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran program, adding that these are incentives for a country that is as isolated as Iran.
Iran hasn’t been known as a weapons exporter. Its arms were previously sent to ideologically aligned proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, largely to fulfill the Islamic Republic’s own regional agenda. The Ukraine war, say analysts, is changing that.
Drones have been in use in the Middle East for several years, but, Lob said, “the Iranians have been working on their indigenous drone capabilities since the Iran-Iraq war, since the 1980s,” giving Tehran ample time for further advancement.
The Ukraine war is an opportunity for Iran to observe how its drones are being used in the battlefield, so it can look at the shortcomings and see how to further improve them, said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. She added that “it is possible that what is happening in Ukraine would bring Iran more customers… Iran really wants to be a big player in the arms and drones industry.”
But Iran’s foes will also be watching the performance of its drones in Ukraine. Its regional rivals in the Gulf Arab states have been direct targets of drone attacks by the Iran-aligned Houthi group in Yemen, and they have accused the Islamic Republic of supplying those drones.
Iran’s archenemy Israel, too, is likely to be watching very closely, said Amir Avivi, a retired senior general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and founder and CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum.
“It’s a threat and it’s an opportunity,” he told CNN. “It’s an opportunity for us to really see [Iranian] capabilities on the grounds, learn about what’s going on. On the other hand, one of the things that worries us is that [weapons]… might arrive to Hezbollah, for example, [or] to Hamas.”
“It’s a challenge all the time to keep developing and always being one step ahead [of] the capabilities that the other side is developing,” he said. “So we are watching very closely what is happening in Ukraine.”
Tehran and Moscow’s growing military ties are, however, “bad news” for the West, he said, “because [we’ve] never seen such a tight and close cooperation between Russia and Iran.”
CNN’s Hadas Gold and Abbas Al Lawati contributed to this report.
Regime change instigated from Washington is not part of the Biden administration’s policy on Iran, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday.
“Our policy is to defend and support the fundamental rights of Iranian citizens just as we want to support the fundamental rights of citizens across the globe. The form of government in Iran will be up to the Iranians to decide,” he said.
Nationwide protests have been ongoing for over a month following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini with calls for regime change ringing around the streets.
Here’s the latest on this developing story:
- Professional Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi said that she “accidentally” competed without a hijab during the Asian Championships in South Korea this week, in an interview with state-run IRNA upon her arrival in Tehran Wednesday.
- At least 880 people were arrested in Iran’s Gilan province, semi-official Tasnim News Agency reported on Monday.
- The European Union on Monday sanctioned 11 people and four entities for their role in the death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent crackdown on protesters. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian branded the move “superfluous.”
- At least 215 people have been killed since Iran’s nationwide protests started in September, Norway-based Iran-focused rights group, Iran HR, said on Monday. .
UAE summons EU mission head to explain Borrell comments it says were racist
The United Arab Emirates on Monday summoned the acting head of the EU mission in the country, asking for an explanation of what it said were racist comments made by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week. The UAE foreign ministry said the remarks were “inappropriate and discriminatory” and “contribute to a worsening climate of intolerance and discrimination worldwide,” state news agency WAM reported.
- Background: In his remarks at the new European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium last week, Borrell called Europe “a garden” and most of the world a “jungle” that “could invade the garden.” “The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us,” he said. At a press conference on Monday, Borrell denied that his message was racist or colonialist, news agency EFE reported.
- Why it matters: The comments have created a stir on social media in the Middle East, with critics denouncing the speech as promoting a colonial narrative. Most of the Middle East had been under European control until the mid-20th century.
Israel summons Australian ambassador to protest decision on Jerusalem
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Australia’s ambassador to the country on Tuesday to protest Canberra’s reversal of a decision taken by the previous government to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said.
- Background: Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Tuesday justified the reversal of the move by saying the sovereignty of the holy city is a “final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people.”
- Why it matters: Israel considers all of Jerusalem its “undivided capital.” It captured the eastern sector of the city in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by most of the international community. Palestinians want the occupied eastern sector of the city as the capital of a future state.
Son of US citizen detained in Saudi Arabia says his father is ‘nowhere near being dissident’
The son of an American citizen imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for criticizing the Saudi government said Tuesday evening that his father is “nowhere near being a dissident.” Ibrahim Almadi told CNN on Tuesday that if his father had been held in Russia or Iran, “we’d see his name in the headlines every morning.”
- Background: The US State Department confirmed earlier Tuesday that 72-year-old Saad Ibrahim Almadi has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia after being given a 16-year sentence for tweets critical of the Saudi government. State Deputy Spokesperson He said the State Department is still going through the process to determine whether Almadi will be designated as “wrongfully detained.”
- Why it matters: Saudi Arabia has very strict social media rules and has sentenced people in the past over their Twitter activity. In August, Saudi women’s rights campaigner Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for her activity on Twitter, according to court documents viewed by CNN. Another woman, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for tweets, according to US-based advocacy group DAWN.
Egypt, Kuwait, UAE: #Ahmed_Al_Saadoun
It’s not every day that a politician from a small Gulf country trends on social media half the way across the Arab world. But Kuwait’s new parliament speaker is a popular figure who has a following far beyond his country’s borders.
Eighty-seven-year-old Ahmed Al-Saadoun was named speaker of Kuwait’s parliament on Tuesday. He’s not new to politics, having served as speaker between 1985 and 1999, as well as in 2012. A fiery politician whose career has spanned almost four decades, he is a staunch advocate of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression and is known for his vocal support for the rights of Palestinians.
Sadoun, who has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter, was trending in Egypt, Kuwait and the UAE following the announcement. Kuwait is a country of 4.3 million people, just under 2 million of whom are citizens.
The new speaker has not shied away from controversy. In Gulf states, publicly criticizing neighboring countries is taboo but in 2012, after Saudi Arabia proposed joining Gulf nations into a union, Saadoun, as the-then speaker of parliament, said he supported Gulf integration with conditions.
“There cannot be a union with countries whose political systems are different… whose jails are filled with thousands of prisoners of conscience,” he told the Saudi state-backed news channel Al Arabiya news channel at the time, adding that his own country enjoys freedom of expression and representation.
Kuwaiti politics are followed closely in the region. Despite the years-long standoff between the government and parliament, which has delayed crucial reform, the country is widely viewed as the most democratic of the six Gulf states, with a vibrant press scene and a relatively open political discourse.
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Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is a think tank, not a registered lobby group.