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IMMINENT WARNING: US INTELLIGENCE SAYS IRAN IS PROVIDING MATERIALS FOR RUSSIAN ATTACK DRONE FACTORY

June 9, 2023

Gabriel Helupka, Jennifer Radlinsky, Megan Khalife Álvaro Picón, Editor; Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor


Alabuga Special Economic Zone[1]


Event: On June 9, the White House declassified intelligence revealing Iran's construction materials provision for a drone manufacturing plant in Russia's Alabuga special economic zone, located within the Yelabuga region of the Republic of Tatarstan. National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby stated that intelligence officials anticipate the factory to become operational in early 2024, and they plan to use the drones to support Russia's ongoing war efforts in Ukraine. US officials say the development indicates a deepening defense partnership between Iran and Russia, as Iran seeks to procure additional military equipment, including attack helicopters, radars, and combat aircraft like the Su-35 from Russia.[2] The Department of Justice (DOJ) also issued an advisory to inform the private sector, the public, and the international community about compliance with sanctions and the inadvertent risk of contributing to Iran's vast network of procurement entities, front companies, suppliers, and intermediaries involved in the acquisition of components for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The DOJ advisory said Iran has transferred UAVs and their components to Russia for use in strikes against critical infrastructure and other targets in Ukraine since August 2022.[3]


Significance: Iran's materials provision to Russia for a drone manufacturing plant is likely a mutual effort to test and improve both countries’ drone warfare capabilities, likely enabling a deep collaboration to enhance their technical expertise and strategic advantages in unmanned aerial warfare. This will almost certainly enhance Russian military capabilities, very likely ensuring an ongoing supply of UAVs to support its operations in Ukraine. Russia will likely control the factory. Its dependence on Iranian resources and expertise will very likely threaten the supply chain, considering Iran’s volatile domestic situation and subjection to sanctions on its drone procurement efforts. Russia will very likely deploy reconnaissance drones to support troops on the front lines and mitigate casualties, likely aiming to rebuild lost assets and restrengthen its capabilities. Russia will almost certainly use these drones to bolster its critical infrastructure targeting strategy, likely inflicting maximum damage and experiencing minimal loss. Russia is almost certainly prioritizing domestic drone production to circumvent the need to ship via potentially vulnerable supply routes, likely setting up an intensified war effort. The timeline for the factory’s completion likely indicates that Russia is planning for the Ukrainian offensive to continue through the next year. Russia will almost certainly leverage the ability to readily manufacture drones to shift the power center in Europe and strengthen its ties with allies while instilling fear in other countries with invasion possibilities. The Russian-Iranian alliance will likely impact regional power dynamics in Europe and the Middle East, likely prompting countries to reassess security partnerships and seek new ones to counter the growing capabilities of Russia and Iran through information sharing, shared defensive tactics, and a unified understanding of the drone threat. Additional export controls on commercial drone manufacturing components will unlikely eliminate Iran’s capabilities to produce drones, likely leading Western nations to collaborate more closely with private industry partners to develop guidance on due diligence, red flags, and targeted parts, aiming to reduce Iran's foreign procurement efforts.


Recommendations

  • The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends a multilateral approach among Western countries for intelligence sharing and shared export controls on high-end components utilized in Iranian drones, including high-resolution sensors and engines. CTG recommends that the US government collaborate with the EU to achieve this approach, as most sanctions on Iran's industry are perceived as US-based, thereby creating a global perspective on the threat.

  • CTG recommends Western governments issue similar advisories to engage with companies unfamiliar with the threat of Iran's drone procurement network. This would help the industry understand their unintentional involvement in the procurement trade and how to prevent contributing to it.

  • CTG recommends Western governments implement catch-all export controls on high-end commercially available items that can contribute to Iranian UAV production. This will establish a legal basis for governments to take action against Iranian component procurement.

  • CTG recommends private companies implement increased verification methods, such as the Know Your Customer (KYC) approach, to track who they are selling or shipping components to.

  • CTG recommends Western intelligence agencies and government cooperate to thoroughly investigate supply chains for items and components necessary for Iranian drone production. We also recommend that independent security and research firms send teams to inspect downed drones in Ukraine to trace their manufacturers and find the origins of these parts. These actions will enhance understanding of procurement networks, identify vulnerabilities, and mitigate risks associated with illicit Iranian drone proliferation.

  • CTG recommends Western governments and intelligence agencies prioritize and invest in efficient UAVs to counter the Russian-Iranian drone program. We also recommend they initiate partnerships with academic and scientific institutions to conduct more drone-related research.

  • CTG recommends continued and robust monitoring of the partnership between Russia and Iran and the drone manufacturing facility’s construction progress. We recommended dedicating more resources to identifying key operatives and organizations involved in drone material shipping to gain additional insight into their capabilities, opportunities, and intent. We recommend continued public publishing of satellite imagery of the construction area.

  • CTG recommends Iranian-backed proxies’ thorough tracking of illicit activities that may contribute to funds procurement necessary for obtaining drone components.

  • CTG recommends critical public safety information dissemination via reliable sources and urges Ukrainian citizens to remain alert and follow local officials' advice in the event of drone strikes and other attacks.

  • If there is any additional and or critical information please contact us at The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) by Telephone 202-643-2848 or email info@counterterrorismgroup.com

 

[2] White House says Iran is helping Russia build a drone factory east of Moscow for the war in Ukraine, AP, June 2023, https://apnews.com/article/russia-iran-drone-factory-ukraine-war-dfdfb4602fecb0fe65935cb24c82421a

[3] United States Issues Advisory to Industry on Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Activity Connected to Iran, US Department of Justice, June 2023, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/united-states-issues-advisory-industry-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-activity-connected-iran

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