The United States on Monday unveiled a potential new player in the war in Ukraine: Iran.

Recently declassified US intelligence indicates that Tehran is preparing to supply Russia with “hundreds” of drones – including those with weapons capability – for use in the war in Ukraine, officials said. the White House.

“Our information further indicates that Iran is preparing to train Russian forces in the use of these drones, with an initial training session scheduled as early as early July. It is not clear whether Iran has already delivered one of these drones to Russia,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said. told reporters at the White House press conference on Monday.

Sullivan argued that news of Iran’s supply of the drones is proof that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine in recent weeks come at the “severe” price of depleting its own weapons.

The announcement raised eyebrows, and not everyone is convinced that Iran is capable of exporting large quantities of drones. “Iran is unlikely to even have that many operational drones in its own fleet,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of Bourse Bazaar, a London-based think tank. “He also has no experience in exporting drones on a large scale.”

The White House claim comes as nuclear talks between Iran and the United States have reached an impasse, potentially raising the specter of a new conflict in the Middle East if they break down. But it also comes as Middle Eastern states prepare to launch an alliance of Arab states and Israel, apparently with US backing, to counter potential threats from Iran. Iran has warned that it views the move as a provocation and a threat to its national security.

If Iran does indeed plan to sell arms to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine, it would essentially be inserting itself into a Russian-Western proxy war in NATO’s backyard. The message to the Biden administration is that Tehran can also expand its influence in distant conflict zones where the United States has vested interests.

Although Iranian drones are not known to be sought after by militaries around the world, they pose a powerful threat to its adversaries. They are an integral part of Iran’s military strategy and have caught the attention of US officials. Last year, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top US commander in the Middle East, told Congress that Iran-linked drones “present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies”. For the first time since the Korean War, “we are operating without total air superiority,” he said.

Drone warfare was particularly prominent in the early weeks of the Ukrainian conflict, when Turkish-made strike drones were used by the Ukrainian military to great effect. But Russian air defenses now offer greater cover to the east.

Iranian drones would not be a game-changer, but could mitigate Russian weaknesses in drone operation.

Major General Hossein Salaami, commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said last year that his country had drones with a range of 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles). Iran’s medium-to-large drones can likely stay aloft for up to 8 p.m. while carrying fairly sophisticated sensors, payloads and an array of weapons, according to the US Institute for Peace. Some of its drones, such as those used by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, can carry a payload of up to 150 kg, he said.

Iranian drones have been used outside its borders before, but that has largely been in conflict zones in the Middle East where Tehran can smuggle them to its non-state proxies. They have been effective in Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where the United States believed they were used in an attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 that saw crude prices soar to a record high. Iran has denied launching the attack.

The arrival of Iranian weapons in the biggest European conflict since the Second World War would a major milestone for the Iranian arms industry and its status as an arms manufacturer. And it would represent a rare occasion when Tehran’s weapons were used not just by a state actor, but by a leading global military power.

CNN’s Tim Lister contributed to this article.

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